With the Olympics drawing to a close, many athletes will begin to turn their attention to a crucial yet daunting question: what's next?
The Olympic Games are a unique event, with the potential for extreme highs and lows that accompany success, loss, injury, or regret. The experience of the games on athlete mental health goes far beyond the competition itself, though, with the weeks and months following the event crucial to athlete wellbeing.
It is critical to understand what can contribute to better or worse post-Olympic experiences for our athletes. In our recently published research, we set out to explore this question by interviewing 18 Australian athletes who had competed in the 2016 Rio Games.
Our goal was to explore what factors are most important to athlete wellbeing (and why), in addition to understanding the strategies athletes used to cope following their Olympic experiences.
The mental health of athletes has attracted increased attention, thanks to high-profile stars like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles.
But even before the Tokyo Games, a 2019 statement from the International Olympic Committee highlighted that mental ill-health was common among elite athletes. It also emphasised how more needs to be done to improve the recognition and treatment of mental health issues, support athletes and reduce stigma around this topic. Several athletes described the importance of having a plan for what they would do next, saying this was absolutely crucial to their wellbeing. These plans varied from getting married or going on holiday to beginning a degree, a new job, or even a new athletic season.
Conversely, when athletes did not have clear plans — like being uncertain about whether to retire or continue competing — difficulties emerged. One athlete said, When you get home it's really lonely […] It's quite depressing, and it is a little bit overwhelming, starting from square one again. Another telling quote came from an athlete who described how some fellow Olympians would "really, really struggle" after the games.
They've come back from the Olympics and they haven't had anything to do. So, they haven't had university, they haven't had work, they haven't had a family, they haven't had community engagement, they haven't had a plan.
The athletes also shared with us that support from family, friends, coaches, and their sporting organisations significantly enhanced their wellbeing.
Some said when this support dropped off, it made the transition back to normality far harder.