why some athletes struggle with their mental health after the Olympics

After the rush of competing at the Olympics and Paralympics, you’d expect an athlete to feel on top of the world as they return home. But for some athletes, the period after the Olympics and Paralympics can be an especially challenging time. Though it might not effect everyone, many athletes experience mental health problems after competing in the Games – sometimes known as a “post-Olympic dark period”.

Many athletes have opened up in the past about the mental health struggles they faced while adjusting to life after the Games. For instance, Olympic skier Nick Goepper reported feeling extremely depressed and even contemplated killing himself after returning home following his bronze medal win at the 2014 Winter Olympics. And the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, has spoken about experiencing severe post-Olympic depression.

According to research from 2021, around 24% of Olympic and Paralympic athletes reported experiencing high or very high psychological distress after the Games. There are many reasons an athlete might experience a post-Olympic dark period. In some cases, many factors may be involved.

For example, failing to live up to performance expectations, not making a final or not achieving a personal best are all reported to affect an athlete’s wellbeing after the Games. Under-performing can be particularly distressing, especially given the Olympics or Paralmypics only take place once every four years.

Other factors linked to post-Olympic dark periods include the the euphoria of winning waning, loss of celebrity status, trouble readjusting to life at home, less social support from teammates, injury and lack of routine after competition.

Interestingly, even athletes who win a medal or perform better than expected can experience post-Olympic dark periods – though this might not happen until weeks after the Games. For them, the first several weeks following the Games are filled with media engagements and appearances. But as interest in them subsides, they may begin to experience low mood, isolation and other symptoms of depression.

A person holds a gold medal from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in their hand.
Even winners can struggle with their mental health. fifg/ Shutterstock

Athletic identity

Identity can also play a key role in post-Olympic dark periods. Many athletes feel that they need to have an intense dedication to their sport in order to achieve success, which often starts at a young age. But having their identity solely revolve around being an athlete can also lead to mental health struggles when they face challenges – such as underperforming, getting injured or retiring, which can all threaten their identity. When being an athlete is a person’s only focus, it often means that they haven’t invested in other interests or considered the possibility of another career.

Athletes who felt like they were losing their identity in this way after competing in the Olympics reported experiencing poor mental health, including distress and depression. Even athletes who have a positive outcome during the Games can feel this way.

How long these dark periods last for can vary between athletes. But in particular, those who struggle to let go of poor performance may experience longer-term psychological distress. For example, one study detailed how an athlete held onto the distress of underperforming at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics until they were nearly due to compete in the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Retiring after the Olympics or Paralympics may also cause long term mental health problems. One study even showed 40% of former athletes struggled to come to terms with their retirement and others clung on to the pasteven years later.

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