Having a winning spirit means building resilience and accepting outcomes. In this Everyday Health article, Mindpath Health’s Leela R. Magavi, MD, explains why athletes perform better when they can openly discuss their mental health struggles.
With so many standout gold-medal moments at the Olympics, it’s easy to forget an important truth: Most athletes who compete don’t win.
But during the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, top athletes showed us that not winning can make for standout moments, too. Mental health experts say these examples of resilience and mental toughness, even in the face of tough losses, are important.
“Openly expressing emotion allows people to practice self-compassion, maintain positive momentum, and believe in themselves,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and the regional medical director of Mindpath Health in Newport Beach, California. “In talking openly about their losses and practicing gratitude for other things in life, these athletes not only normalize struggle and disappointment for others, but also make things easier on themselves.”
Following in the footsteps of stars like gymnast Simone Biles and tennis pro Naomi Osaka, a few star Winter Olympic athletes have been open about what it’s like to struggle under pressure and deal with disappointment.
This kind of openness is crucial. Many people think about confidence, perseverance, and success under pressure when we talk about mental toughness, says Christian Glasgow, PsyD, a psychologist based in Ventura, California, who works with professional and Olympic athletes. But it’s also about learning to persevere in the face of a loss, because that’s part of the game, too.
“These athletes, particularly at high levels, hate losing more than they like winning,” Dr. Glasgow says. “My goal is to reframe that situation: Life is going to be okay if you don’t get the gold medal.”
When you’re able to look at loss as part of life, instead of viewing it as a personal failure, you’re less likely to start doubting your own abilities. Thus you’re able to give your best effort the next time, Glasgow says. “Doubt is the killer of confidence.”
And it’s a really important way of inspiring everyone at home watching. When these sports greats acknowledge failure, defeat, and disappointment — while expressing gratitude toward themselves for showing up and giving it their best shot — it’s a reminder to all of us at home to maybe not be so hard on ourselves the next time we inevitably slip up, Glasgow says.
Here are just a few Team USA athletes who weren’t afraid to get a little vulnerable at the Winter Olympics, and so provided an example of what mental toughness really means.
1. Snowboarder Shaun White Missed the Podium, but Walked Away Proud, Grateful, and Praising His Competitors
After winning three Olympic gold medals in the halfpipe (in 2006, 2010, and 2018), the snowboarder Shaun White finished fourth at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. White, who officially retired after the event, gave a heartfelt, tearful interview following the fourth-place finish.
“A lot of emotions hitting me right now,” he told NBC, before adding that he was “so happy” thanks to the cheering crowd and kind words from his competitors. “Snowboarding, thank you,” he went on. “It’s been the love of my life.”
He cried as he thanked his family via video chat, then talked about how excited he is to see where the sport goes and watch his competitors continue to succeed. “I’m proud to stand and cheer him on,” White said of Ayumu Hirano, the Japanese snowboarder who won gold.
This show of gratitude and sportsmanship (with a side of tears) is a poignant example of resilience, says Julia M. Kim, PhD, a psychologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, who works with patients after sports-related injuries. “When we ‘lose’ something, it is important to balance it with what we have.” Doing this can help us remember that a specific loss (like at a sports event) doesn’t mean that we’ve lost everything, even though it can feel like that in the moment, Dr. Kim says.
Recognizing all the great things in your life, as White did, is a way to anchor yourself in reality instead of going down what Kim calls “a rabbit hole of despair.” That’s true resilience.
2. Snowboarder Jamie Anderson Got Real About Getting Emotional
Jamie Anderson, an American snowboarder who won gold in the slopestyle event at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, finished ninth in this year’s event. Following the finish, she opened up about her emotional state going into competition.
“I had a little bit of a mental breakdown,” Anderson told NBC. “At the end of the day, I’m only human. I do my best. I try my hardest all the time, but I’m not a robot.”
Experts applaud her bravery and vulnerability. “These candid expressions throughout media platforms are raising awareness and prompting more individuals to seek help [for mental health],” Dr. Magavi says. “Learning that Anderson has also struggled with the debilitating effects of stress and anxiety helps normalize these feelings and conditions for other athletes, fans, and viewers who suffer in silence.”
And it seems like Anderson is better off after sharing these thoughts. “I decided I don’t want my happiness to depend on a result or a medal,” she told NBC. “I want to be happy regardless, and I want to genuinely be proud of the girls who are putting it down.”
3. Skier Mikaela Shiffrin Relied on Friends and Family to Cope With Disappointment
In an interview with NBC after her ninth place finish in the women’s super-G (an event for which she was a heavy favorite), Mikaela Shiffrin, the most decorated American alpine skier in history, opened up about disappointment. “I feel bad for letting myself down, and letting down the world,” she said. “It is failure. It’s okay to say that. I am okay with that.”
But in the same conversation, she talked about how grateful she was for all the people who reached out to support her. “I don’t feel like I deserve it,” she said. “I would never have felt that humans could be so kind.”
And, she made clear that she has plenty to be grateful for in her skiing career. “I have Olympic medals, and I’ve had great success, triumphant moments, and plenty to be happy about over the last years,” she said.
Shiffrin’s candidness is refreshing, Glasgow says. Vocalizing and confronting difficult feelings is the best way to move forward in the face of a loss, he adds. “Personal growth doesn’t happen when things are going well,” he says. “It happens when we’re incredibly challenged, in sports and in life.”
Read the full Everyday Health article with sources.
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