Mental Health In Swimming: A Topic Critical to the Well-Being of Athletes and Promoted By Leading Names

Swimming World November 2020 Cover - Allison Schmitt - with Michael and Nicole Phelps 2015

Mental Health In Swimming: A Topic Critical to the Well-Being of Athletes

From the July issue of Swimming World Magazine

Mental health isn’t a new topic for athletes, just like it isn’t new for any group that hits a headline for grappling with emotional and psychological challenges. But the difference in recent years is the willingness to shine a light on it.

For all he accomplished in the pool, Michael Phelps’ most lasting legacy might be outside of the water.

Every few months, as Phelps navigates life as a retired athlete in his 30s, he’ll pop up with an interview ahead of his latest dip into the spotlight, whether that’s a non-swimming athletic endeavor or a documentary chronicling his life. The topic invariably turns to arguably the most resonant part of his journey, his openness about his mental health while he was accumulating 28 Olympic medals and 39 world records.

Phelps’ profile affords a privilege few have. He’s been in the global spotlight for two decades, from the time he stepped on the deck at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as a gangly 15-year-old butterflyer. The world has seen him grow, and with time, he’s offered his fans insight to the pains of that growth, from his youthful indiscretions to the triumphs of stardom to becoming a husband and father. We’ve seen him reflect on the costs and rewards of his ascent to athletic superstardom at different points of his life, as a teenager coping with ADHD, as a twentysomething struggling with depression, and as an adult with greater distance from the toughest times.

In exchange for that privilege, Phelps has made a mission of bringing others along for the ride. And it’s undeniable that when a star of his caliber disclosed that he once felt “like I didn’t want to be alive anymore”—as in a recent interview referencing his second DUI in 2014—it holds a certain power.

Six years after his retirement, Phelps is still swimming’s biggest star, more rhetorical device—see marketing copy calling someone “the Michael Phelps of (blank)”—than person. But Phelps’ insistence on infusing his humanity—with all its messiness—into the narrative has long been a priority.

Phelps provides a constant reminder that athletes, even the very best of them, are people. No amount of proficiency in the water or on the field exempts them from the pressures of daily life. He’s long been at the forefront of the conversation of mental health in swimming, and the sport has, more than most, been willing to engage with the complex conversations around mental well-being of athletes.

For all that progress, there’s work still to do. With Phelps as an avatar, it’s a process that’s well underway.

“Younger fans who are watching are seeing some of these athletes show incredible courage and vulnerability in sharing a very normal part of being human, which is having any type of mental health or mental wellness struggle,” says Dr. Melissa Streno, a licensed clinical psychologist and expert with TrueSport. “…We’re seeing a lot more stories come forward that people can relate to, and then it doesn’t feel that scary to acknowledge their own and share what their experience has been at.”

Mental Health America

ALL ABOUT VISIBILITY

One word comes up often in conversation with Streno: Visibility.

Streno’s practice, Lantern Psychology, is based in Denver, where she’s an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Sport and Performance Psychology Program. She also works with TrueSport, an initiative from the United States Anti-Doping Agency that provides coaching resources, certifications and strategies to look after holistic well-being in athletes. Streno’s primary focus is in disordered eating and body image, but she’s worked with a number of athletes from youth to the Olympic level as a certified mental performance consultant.

When athletes like Phelps or gymnast Simone Biles—not just outstanding athletes but icons of their sports—show the courage to speak about their ailments, it signals to others that they aren’t alone in what they’re fighting. If athletes at that level are having a difficult time, then it can feel less scary for younger athletes to have those same feelings and to seek help. The stature of such exemplary athletes allows that message to transcend their sport or even sports in general, connecting with athletes and non-athletes alike. The many athletes who have been forthcoming creates what Streno sees as a snowball effect, ensuring that these discussions won’t return to the shadows.

“I think just for visibility, it’s great when these high-profile athletes are willing to do that,” she says. “They’re known for their incredible athletic ability, but it’s one more layer to what incredible people they are that they can talk about these things. I think it opens the door for more people.”

Apr 15, 2015; Mesa, AZ, USA; North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates Allison Schmitt and Michael Phelps check their goggles during practice session at the Arena Pro Swim Series at Skyline Aquatic Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher/Arizona Republic via USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Sports

That kind of vulnerability has a feed-forward mechanism. Allison Schmitt is a perfect example. The four-time Olympian battled depression after the 2012 Olympics, an ordeal she has been very public with. She overcame those bouts to qualify for two more Olympics, including the Tokyo Games in 2021 at the age of 31, where she added a pair of relay medals to her 10 total Olympic medals.

A psychology major at the University of Georgia, she has paired swimming with work as a counselor to college students at Arizona State, where she trained for Tokyo with her former North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach, Bob Bowman. She’s also become a sagacious mentor of national teams, a valued perspective on the many dimensions of being an elite athlete.

“It is OK to have those down times and OK to reach out. You feel like you don’t want to be a bother to someone else,” Schmitt said last summer after qualifying for Tokyo. “I have been shown how much people care for me, even when I feel like I am losing hope or don’t know what is next.”

TAKING DOWN THE STRUCTURAL BARRIERS

Addressing mental health in athletes defies one-size-fits-all solutions, but Streno breaks it down into multiple parts.

Athletes have to recognize the problem and be willing to address the issues. Resources have to be available, and while access is improving, that’s not uniformly true in all areas for all populations or for everyone’s schedule or finances. Having role models like Phelps and Schmitt to lessen the stigma eases some of the friction in these difficult steps.

But from a structural perspective, organizations erect barriers that can seem prohibitively daunting. The recent allegations regarding the conduct of Coach Teri McKeever at the University of California-Berkeley provide a chilling example: Athletes are going to be reticent to address their mental health challenges if they fear being ostracized for it or having it held against them. It’s not just having the resources to reach out to, but feeling empowered and supported to do so.

When Streno zooms out those kinds of patterns, it becomes so obviously ludicrous. You wouldn’t hold it against someone for being injured and physically unable to complete a practice. Why isn’t mental health regarded in the same way? If an athlete can miss a session with no repercussions when they feel tightness in a muscle, why wouldn’t they be free to do the same when they feel anxiety spiking? Recognizing mental health as being as valid as physical health disincentivizes athletes to hide problems or let them fester until they become inflamed.

To that end, treating mental health with the same preventative measures as physical health—regular checkups, guarding against overloading, etc.—could help alleviate pressures before they become problems.

“My hope would be that all athletes are surrounded by that supportive structure and there’s a framework of people who really believe in that and see that as important and are doing everything they can to promote the importance of these athletes being the experts on themselves and checking in and reaching out when they need it,” Streno said. “I think it’s one less barrier, and it’s a huge barrier that something you work so hard for is going to be compromised, whether that’s playing time, a starting spot, becoming a captain—just your perception and how you view yourself being perceived among the team and among coaches.

“I think if we could eliminate that barrier, that would be a really crucial part in making seeking help a more tolerable step.”

BURNOUT AND THE PANDEMIC

The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly brought changes for athletes, amid the larger societal upheaval. Streno doesn’t see them as uniformly negative, though.

One effect of the calendar fluctuations has been on burnout, the tendency of athletes to saturate themselves to the point of being unable to continue. In an endurance sport like swimming, the pandemic has produced results that can appear paradoxical.

Being out of the water for several months in the spring of 2020, in what was supposed to be an Olympic year, brought uncertainty. Some athletes chose not to ride out another year to the next Olympics. Others set 2021 as their stopping point. Lacking a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and being isolated from a community was difficult. So was the compressed and hectic schedule that unfolded when sports resumed semi-normally. But many of the athletes who came out of that, Streno says, were galvanized by a sense of accomplishment.

Streno saw a great deal of resilience. Part of the reason is a sneaky benefit of the stoppage: When the pandemic forcibly removed athletes from their day-to-day grinds, they had rare time to reflect, to explore interests outside of sports and to craft an idea of what they wanted, not just from sports, but from life in general.

“I think having to adjust and having to re-evaluate what training looks like and communication with athletes and teammates and coaches and all of that, that had a huge impact,” Streno says. “I think it caused a lot of people to pause and consider their why for doing sports and really challenge them with what, I hope, was one of the biggest challenges in their athletic career.”

In addressing burnout and the pandemic, Streno falls back on the same core principles. If an athlete feels like they’ve had enough, it’s important to trust them to know what’s right for themselves. Communicating openly, being willing to be vulnerable—and seeing others doing the same—models that behavior and makes it easier to make tough decisions like major changes in training.

Sometimes, taking a step back is the right move. Instead of trudging through in the short term, taking a break for a day, a week, a month might be the best way to attain long-term goals. Several high-profile swimmers, among them Ryan Murphy and Caeleb Dressel, did just that. On the heels of the condensed prep for Tokyo, they took unusually long breaks last fall—Dressel in particular was vocal about being mentally and physically spent after winning five golds—and have returned at a high level this year.

The changes in this space leave Streno encouraged. Many of the pressures of the unrelenting connection of social media and the existential crises of living in 2022 aren’t abating any time soon. But athletes have the tools to navigate this world. Having the time and space to utilize those resources is being continually reinforced as never before.

“I think there’s a push, and I strongly encourage the training and protecting and taking care of the mind equally as much as the body,” Streno says. “I think if we do that, we’re going to eliminate or maybe minimize some of the issues so it doesn’t feel as severe or sudden later on. I hope that organizations—from top-level managers and CEOs—are prioritizing mental health and funds and time to address it.”

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Steve Miskelley
5 months ago

Thank you for shining a light on this. It seems that swimmers struggle with mental health issues more than most.
Having lost our son, a swimmer for University of Michigan, to suicide in September of 2020, I can say with certainty that the pandemic was a major factor in his death. Much like every other major program, the team was devastated when the NCAA canceled the championships. The isolation that followed became too much.
I applaud programs that encourage athletes to speak up. I want to provide the tools and then resources for them to get the help they need. Spending in this area needs to quadruple in order to get the resources needed.
C’mon NCAA – it’s time to mandate adequate mental health professionals be hired in support of your athletes.

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Paul
4 months ago

My heartfelt love to you and your family. Thank you for speaking out on this.