Great expectations: Olympics put mental health under the spotlight

Parents, trainers and coaches benefit from a better understanding of how the brain works

Written by Dr Ingrid Artus, Published in The Sunday Times on 1 August 2021

The Olympics Games, the event that brings the world together in order to observe the pinnacle of human endurance, strength and ability, has aroused emotions of awe and wonder from spectators since the inception of the modern Games in 1896.

The world’s most elite athletes are not only competing for personal acclaim, are representing the various nations of the world. Expectations are high. And it is exactly this pressure that can take its toll on the mental health of even the most well prepared and professionally trained athlete. US gymnast and gold medallist Simone Bile’s decision to unexpectedly withdraw from the Tokyo Summer Games to focus on her mental health has reignited the debate about our understanding of the human psyche and performance, particularly how it relates to the world of sport.

Sport psychologists understand the dynamics of the interface between peak performance and the mental state of athletes. Various techniques are used to assist their clients on a brain level to overcome performance anxiety, to improve focus and concentration and to develop mental endurance. Such techniques may include visualisation exercises, biofeedback protocols and brain-working therapies. There can be incredibly helpful the elicit optimal outcomes, but sometimes internal and external expectations can elicit such pressure, that the nervous system responds with the opposite physiological and emotional responses that are desired.

If we consider brain dynamics for instance, we typically feel calm, relaxed and focused when our rational prefrontal cortex is activated. We do not focus on historical failures or mistakes, nor do we worry about what can go wrong or overthink all potential negative future outcomes. It is only that singular moment that exists, and we feel completely in control. This is of course important to elicit focused concentration in order to perform the task at hand. It is normal and useful for us to experience a slight adrenalin and cortisol spike shortly before we commence a stressful task, but as the task progresses, these levels typically normalise and the person is completely engaged in the activity at hand. This is when we are able to deliver the best results. The limbic system engages emotional regulation, and our ability to experience connection, joy, pleasure, meaning and purpose is seated near the centre of the brain.

The rewards associated with these experiences are strong emotional drivers that can reinforce both negative and positive behaviours and habits. Receiving social rewards for a sports performance can be highly motivating, but of course, failing to achieved the desired results can have a devastating effect on athletes, particularly those with an external locus of control. This is when a person perceives experiences and outcomes as being the result of external factors, almost in a fatalistic sense, and that the person is completely unable to change or influence future outcomes. One can see how such a worldview can lead to hopelessness and despair. Most top athletes however have a strong sense of internal agency and are able to use mistakes as opportunities to correct and improve the finer nuances associated with their skills.

The part of the brain that is activated when we experience all sorts of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression and acute stress responses, is called the hindbrain or the “reptilian complex”, since it is regarded as the primitive brain. The hindbrain, consisting mainly of the brain stem, that regulates heart rate and breathing for example, as well as the medulla oblongata and amygdala is the survival machinery of the brain. It seeks to keep us alive and is an astute “threat detector”. Now, since humans don’t really have to fear being chased by lions as much anymore (except perhaps in the context of rugby), our threats can be much more abstract, such as the fears of failure, rejection, abandonment, not being good enough, disappointing others and a host of other fearful beliefs that can hijack our cognitions. It is this automatic stress activation that leads to behaviours such as fighting, fleeing, freezing and fainting. These are always associated with physiological markers such as increased adrenalin and cortisol levels, increased blood pressure and heart rate, shallow breathing, blood flow moving from the internal organs, particularly the digestive system to the muscles in preparation for a survival response. In the context of sport, a measure of activation of this system may be beneficial to increase strength and endurance, but when the beneficial stress levels are surpassed, performance can drop instantly and have the complete opposite effect – stress induced failure.

The fight response as is manifested in anger and rage outbursts, have been noted on tennis courts, soccer fields and every manner of sporting context and beyond. Flight is always associated with fear and anxiety. Avoidance responses such as walking of courts or not even getting on them to start off with are examples of how anxiety can be observed in the world of sport. These are usually a subconscious hindbrain attempt to avoid the extremely uncomfortable physiological sensations that accompany anxiety. In its extreme form, severe stress and trauma can lead to freezing and collapsing. This can be compared to “the deer staring into the headlights” phenomenon. The brain is so overwhelmed in that moment that it does not know what to do. It freezes as a survival mechanism. At this point athletes are unable to perform strategically since there is a short circuit between the logical pre-frontal cortex and the irrational reptilian complex during extreme stress. Will power and a sense of control cannot be accessed. Survival takes the primary position over pleasure or performance.

In South Africa, the dynamics of performance pressure whether in the context of school sports as well as professional sport are well known. Parents, trainers and coaches alike may benefit from a deeper understanding of how the brain functions. The best way to elicit peak performance is through internal and enjoyment driven motivation, rather than focusing on the fear of failure. As such, it is important to keep the initial driver alive, a love for the sport.