With Tokyo 2020 having just drawn to a close, it feels like an apt time to take a look at what these Games really mean, why mental health is so important in the sporting world, and why kindness is imperative to all that we do. Perhaps what this Games has highlighted the most is the mental side not just of international sport, but all the way through to the grassroots level too. Seeing individuals compete at the Olympic level shows us how sport can bring about both the highest of highs but also the lowest of lows. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom when an athlete’s performance doesn’t go their way – although it is to say that behind every smile on the podium is a whole lot of hard work, sacrifices, and overcoming adversity.
This year’s Olympics has felt a little strange. No fans allowed in stadiums, athletes having to go home right after their events, plus the added barrier of streaming the Games at home. The BBC has provided most of the coverage but have also shared the rights with the channel Discovery+. The shared ownership of the Olympics’ coverage has only widened the gap when it comes to accessibility. As much as we don’t want to admit it, sports coverage has become increasingly privatized – and, in turn, expensive. For many, sport means togetherness, feeling inspired, and feeling a shared sense of enjoyment. Unfortunately, in the current age, where streaming services are prioritised over terrestrial channels, watching and enjoying sport feels like less for everyone and more for the select few. Despite this inconsistent access, it has been a privilege to watch the kindness and respect shown throughout these games. From sharing gold medals, helping each other up on the track (or the field), and embracing the wins of others, Tokyo 2020 has magnified the need for kindness and respect.
The term ‘be kind’ is often bandied around, becoming a phrase associated with frustrated discourse and diverging opinions. What, though, does it really mean? Those two simple words offer more to unpack than it would first seem and are frequently used as a way of blocking out any kind of criticism or disagreement, regardless of whether or not it’s constructive. Aside from this, I think what we really mean when we say ‘be kind’ is actually ‘show compassion’. To show compassion is to still be able to recognise that people are learning and growing but also acknowledge their personal circumstances too. Therefore, the process of relearning kindness essentially translates into developing a greater understanding (or, indeed, a deeper awareness) of others’ sensitivity. After an Olympics dubbed ‘The Kindness Games’, the main takeaway for spectators, I believe, should be a compassionate approach towards mental health. I have mentioned before that mental and physical health are very much intertwined, which is why when we see the likes of gymnast Simone Biles or swimmer Adam Peaty actively making choices in the best interests of their mental health, we must view them with respect.
We have seen multiple devastating injuries over the years at the Olympics, so why is it that we cannot comprehend ill mental health? We all know the massive role that mindset plays when we approach new tasks – or in this case, watch athletes perform on a world stage. Fortunately, I think that this new generation of athletes, who live in a world where they can be instantly reached via the internet, are paving the way in terms of recognising the correlation between mental health and performance. As a young Zac Efron (or Troy Bolton) once said, you’ve got to ‘get your head in the game.’ And he’s right. When your mind is in overdrive and your mental health feels as though it’s declining, your body isn’t going to perform in the same way it would with positive mental health. What this new generation offers us is hope: you can prioritise your mental health andperform with grit and determination.
Another aspect when it comes to the mental health of world-class athletes is the role of the media. Athletes receive an abundance of messages, Tweets, and articles about themselves and their performances every day, making it particularly challenging to switch off. Perhaps what is most noticeable to viewers like ourselves is the manner of the post-match or post-race interviews. Having witnessed raw emotion and heartbreak on our screens, is there a different approach that journos can take? Now, more than ever, there is a need for compassionate reporting. A need for interview hosts to, for want of a better term, ‘read the room.’ When reporting is carried out with a sense of calm and a greater level of empathy, the risk of negatively affecting an athlete’s mental health is lessened. It sounds simple. And it should be. With a little more humanity and greater sensitivity towards athletes’ emotions, we can become part of the solution when it comes to mental health in sport. One of the best examples I have seen this Olympics is the reporting of former Olympian Jeanette Kwakye – empathetic, considerate, and respectful of athletes’ sensitive topics (such as injury). If we had more coverage in the style of Kwakye’s, then I think we’d be doing our athletes a much better service.
What did you take away from these games? Have you been inspired by the kindness displayed? Either way, consider this a reminder to check in on your friends and family, to ‘read the room’, and think about how you can add a little kindness into your day.