It was going to be the Pandemic Olympics; the cheerless games that would inspire ambivalence at best. And then sport did its thing. Despite the lack of crowds and the looming threat of Covid, Tokyo was amazing. It also became something else: the mental health Olympics.
When Simone Biles pulled out of the gymnastics events, she brought an unprecedented focus on the psychological challenges of elite sport. One of the greatest athletes of all time had decided to prioritise her mind over the will – and enormous pressure – to win. “There is more to life than just gymnastics,” she said. After taking stock in a Tokyo gym, she returned to the beam event, taking a bronze medal in what might have felt like one of her biggest victories.
Mental health has been a feature of a sporting summer. Biles said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis star who withdrew from this year’s French Open to ease her anxiety and depression. Brain more than brawn also sparked debate at Wembley, where England’s penalties “curse” returned, and at Wimbledon, where the British wildcard Emma Raducanu prematurely departed the psychological cauldron of No 1 Court. Mark Cavendish came back in spectacular style at the Tour de France, meanwhile, after overcoming depression.
The outpouring of honesty appeared to become contagious. Ben Stokes decided in July to take an indefinite break from cricket to prioritise his mental wellbeing, in what retired player Michael Vaughan told the BBC was a “wake-up call for us all”. The next day, England defender Tyrone Mings made the front page of the Sun when he revealed his “mental health plummeted” in the build-up to Euro 2020 because of anxiety over his selection.
“I did a lot of work on that with my psychologist,” Mings said. “I was given a lot of coping mechanisms – breathing, meditation or just learning how to bring yourself into the present moment. To stop letting your subconscious take over.”
Today’s sporting heroes face unprecedented pressure, not just to perform on the sporting field, but on social media and as the face of their own brands and businesses. “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re humans and there are things going on behind the scenes that we’re also trying to juggle with as well on top of sports,” Biles said.
Light is emerging in the space between “super” and “human”. And if supreme performers are just like us after all, the field of sports psychology – traditionally the preserve of elite performers – has perhaps never been more relatable. More than ever, sports psychologists say, the lessons of these high-stakes moments can be applied to all our lives.
Emma Raducanu had sprung from nowhere at Wimbledon, defeating a string of higher-ranked players in a startling run that captivated the nation. Promoted to No 1 Court – and the front pages – for a fourth-round match against Ajla Tomljanović of Australia, the 18-year-old suffered dizziness and breathing difficulties, and retired. “I think the whole experience caught up with me,” she said later.
Dr Claire-Marie Roberts was watching with a pang of recognition. Roberts, 43, was a promising teenage swimmer, who once qualified for the 100m breaststroke at the 1996 Olympics. But she had done so despite almost crippling competitive anxiety.
“I’d be vomiting in the toilets before races with so many self-doubts and ridiculous scenarios playing out in my mind,” she says. “I’d worry about letting my dad and coach down, and think everyone was much better than me. Sometimes I’d visualise myself with armbands on, struggling even to swim to the end of the pool.”
Happily, and unusually for the time, Roberts had a sports psychologist to turn to for help: “In the early 90s nobody really even knew what a sports psychologist was.” It was only then that she was able to start managing her anxiety and qualify for Atlanta with Team GB.
When a pre-Games injury snuffed out her Olympic dream, Roberts’ experience inspired a job swap. She is now a sports psychologist at the University of the West of England in Bristol, and learning and development manager at the Premier League. Before football, she worked with several Olympic athletes and teams.
Her 25-year journey epitomises the rise in prominence of psychology in sport, which is now combining with a broader awareness of mental health. Wellbeing has become part of a national conversation, with voices as diverse as Prince Harry and Marcus Rashford challenging us all to speak up and look after ourselves. Rashford, who would go on to miss a penalty in the Euro 2020 final against Italy, sent Raducanu a message of support after her withdrawal, revealing that he had experienced a similar reaction to pressure during an under-16 England match.
What can we take from these moments of seemingly unimaginable pressure, and how can we use those lessons to cope with the demands of our own lives?
Roberts begins with a case study – a friend who has a severe fear of flying. The psychologist identifies four core skills in performance psychology. “And they could be just as useful for an England player taking a penalty or my friend getting on a flight to Málaga,” she says.
First, break down big, scary goals into smaller, more manageable ones. “For my friend, the first goal might be getting to the gate,” she says. “Then there’s self-talk, or positive affirmations. Saying, ‘I can do this’, ‘I’ve done this before, I’m meant to be here.’” Mo Farah has talked about feeling unworthy before races in the years before he became a champion. “I always wanted to win but in your head some part of you thinks: ‘He’s better than me, he’s better than me,’ so you put yourself in third or fourth,” he told the Guardian in 2012. Breaking the 10,000m European record in 2011 gave him a confidence that, he added, “feels like it’s a weapon… You’re in control.”
In Tokyo, Swedish discus star Daniel Ståhl earned instant meme status with his own self-talk. “I am a Swedish Viking! Aaaah!” he shouted at himself seconds before a throw.
Next up: visualisation. “It’s fundamental for confidence to be able to see yourself achieving your goals,” Roberts says. “So an athlete might picture themselves scoring a penalty, or my friend might visualise themselves walking to the gate.” Finally, Roberts prescribes relaxation: the learned ability to come down from a state of heightened arousal to take stock and make good decisions. This might require relaxing your muscles or practising meditation. “Or it might be as simple as my friend doing some breathing exercises before takeoff,” Roberts says.
Prof Steve Peters – a veteran sports psychiatrist who has worked with dozens of teams and sportspeople, including the England men’s football squad, British Cycling and the sprinter Adam Gemili – says he often talks to athletes about consequences. “I’d take a sprinter and say, this is what could happen in this 100m race: a world record; underperformance; or an unexpected event,” he tells me from Tokyo, where he is working with the British taekwondo team. “I like to go through each consequence and put them to bed, so they’re not going over them in their minds when they need to focus. I’m always surprised that people don’t do this in real life – they just react to what is thrown at them.”
Peters also works to identify the one thing that is keeping an athlete from performing as well as they could. Sometimes, this can require conversations with his or her coach – and some diplomacy. “Often there is this mismatch,” Peters says. “A high jumper might be focused on their footfall, while a coach might say the problem is getting the hips up. I look for evidence of what is right.”
Dr Andrea Furst, a sports psychologist who works with England Rugby and the Australian sailing team, says the discipline to focus on what needs to be improved is what separates elite athletes and mortals. “Many of the things that are needed to be elite are not particularly complex, but it’s the requirement for them to be done day after day that makes supreme performers,” she says. “One of the best pieces of advice in everyday life would be to pick one thing to focus on to change and stick at it.”
Roberts says greater prominence for sports psychology is improving the way we look after athletes, as well as the way athletes talk about themselves. “What was so encouraging about Raducanu was the openness with which she spoke about what happened,” Roberts says. “I doubt you’d have got that 10 years ago; athletes skirted around the issue, or blamed things like dodgy food to mask the reality of the situation.” Biles was so honest about her own struggles that it felt almost radical. She said the outpouring of support she then received made her realise she was more than her sporting accomplishments, “which I never truly believed before”.
“The idea of a god-athlete is a dangerous mirage,” adds the psychologist Pippa Grange, who has worked with several elite athletes and teams, including England during the 2018 World Cup (she now works for Right to Dream, a football academy in Ghana and Denmark). Her England appointment brought psychology into the heart of the squad, rather than as a service players could reach for if they felt they needed it (or could admit to needing it). Grange reportedly got players to sit in small groups and share their life experiences and anxieties, for example, to improve cohesion and trust – a dynamic that remains central to Gareth Southgate’s winning management style.
“The performances we love the most are the ones where we can see huge hearts, deep character and the mastery of skill at an inspiring level; where we can see ‘humanness’ – not robotic perfection or emotionless ‘execution’,” Grange says. “There is something for all of us to take from that.”
Dr Geir Jordet, a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, is in demand from big businesses to apply lessons and techniques from the singularly stressful scenario of a penalty shootout. The Norwegian former youth footballer, who switched to sports psychology after an injury, spent five years analysing every shootout since 1976 in the World Cup, as well as the Euro and Copa America finals. He also interviewed 25 players. “The mechanisms that we use to deal with performing under pressure are universal,” he says.
When the England-Italy Euro final went to penalties, Jordet grabbed a notepad. His analysis, covering more than 45 years of shootouts, has revealed that when a team only needs one more successful penalty to win the match, the player who takes it will score 92% of the time. When a team will lose the match if they miss the next penalty (for example Bukayo Saka’s turn for England), the player taking that penalty scores only 62% of the time. “In life, it’s about considering the positive consequences of what you’re doing rather than dwelling on the negative consequences if you mess up,” he says.
Jordet even found that the way a player celebrates a successful penalty can really matter. “If you celebrate intensely and make yourself big and show how happy you are with what you did, you immediately increase the chance of your team winning – when we control for other factors, such as the position of the player in the shootout and who’s up or down,” he says.
Jordet, who has worked with dozens of top-flight teams (he prefers not to name clients, but does say he received a call before a Euro 2020 match in case it went to penalties), found that big rather than modest celebrations not only increase the chances of success in the team’s next kick, but of failure when the next opposing taker steps up. “In business, I tell people that when you land an important contract or do well in a meeting, it’s important to show you are happy to everyone around you. It’s contagious.”
Jordet measured the time a player takes to strike the ball after the referee blows the whistle to allow each strike. Players who rush are more likely to miss: perhaps, Jordet says, because they are seeking rapid relief from stress. Just two seconds more to take stock – and control – significantly boosts the chance of scoring.
But waiting too long can be counterproductive; Jordet was stunned when Rashford waited 11 seconds before taking – and missing – his spot kick. No player had taken that long in 45 years of big shootouts, he says. “I’ve always backed myself for a penalty, but something didn’t feel quite right,” Rashford tweeted the next day. “During the long run-up I was saving myself a bit of time and unfortunately the result was not what I wanted.” The lesson? Taking too much time can lead to overthinking and mounting stress.
Above all, the data suggests shootouts are not a lottery: “We found that the more players believe the outcome of penalties are down to chance, the more likely they are to experience destructive anxiety. Perception of control is key.” Southgate knows this, and has prepared and trained his squad accordingly, using data rather than heart to select penalty takers, for example. But whether control is perceived or real, the Italy final showed that it only goes so far.
It was techniques like these, which were novel at the time, that helped Roberts banish some of the stress she felt before big swimming races. That pressure had never stopped her diving off the blocks, but it had made her a deeply anxious teenager.
Growing awareness of these stresses, boosted by Raducanu and Biles’ honesty, is, Roberts says, the most positive result of the rise of sports psychology. “When you look at the athletes competing in Tokyo, some of them are so young and it’s such a huge amount of pressure for anyone, but for a teenager it’s a really tough ask and I think people are only just fully understanding that,” she says.
By forgiving and applauding the likes of Saka, Biles and Raducanu, we are acknowledging a very human response to pressure even when athletic ability can seem impossible to comprehend. It’s something to chew on the next time we step up to our own penalty spot, vault or baseline.
Under pressure: how to keep your cool, by sports experts
Slice up your goals
“If you’re facing a particularly challenging situation, it really helps to break bigger goals into chunks,” says sports psychologist Claire-Marie Roberts.
Avoid impostor syndrome with self-talk
“Use positive affirmations,” Roberts says. “Say to yourself: ‘I can do this, I’ve done this before, I’m meant to be here.’”
“This is fundamental for building confidence,” Roberts says. “Picture yourself achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself.”
Focus on consequences
“If we don’t address the outcomes of what we’re trying to do, they can prey on our minds and undermine focus,” says sports psychiatrist Steve Peters. “Go through the consequences of failure or success and put them to bed one at a time.”
“Breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation or even music can help bring you down from a level of heightened arousal and let you refocus,” Roberts says.
Focus on what’s not helping
“You’re asking yourself what you are doing and what is not helping you achieve your goal, and focusing on that,” Peters says.
Celebrate your triumphs
“When you do well in a team, it’s important to show that you are happy to everyone around you – it’s contagious,” says Geir Jordet, psychology professor.
Pause before going for it – but not too long
“Don’t pass time for its own sake, which may produce overthinking and extra stress,” Jordet says. “Spend a few seconds focusing on what you can control.”
This article was amended on 23 August 2021. An earlier version cited an example of Jordet receiving a call from a client team during a Euro 2020 match. In fact the timing of the contact was before the match. This has been corrected.