Olympic swimming champ Allison Schmitt has been a very public advocate for mental health, talking openly about her own struggles and lobbying the Olympic movement to do more to help athletes. She is almost done with her master’s in social work, and has interned as a counselor.
Yet as she and other Tokyo hopefuls try to manage the upheaval and uncertainty in their lives stemming from the postponement of this summer’s Games, even Schmitt isn’t sure where to turn for help.
“I hope changes are made quickly and soon, especially at this time,” she said. “Olympians and Olympic hopefuls are really struggling with what to do next. You have a lot of time to get in your mind.
Allison Schmitt celebrates her gold medal in the 200-meter freestyle at the 2012 London Games. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)
“Ultimately, I hope the change in initiatives is done very soon, and I hope that change gives athletes in general resources to reach out to.”
On Friday, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) plans to announce a 13-person task force created to develop best practices, resources and action plans for the mental health of U.S. athletes. The task force began work in February and includes mental health experts, medical professionals, coaches and Olympic and Paralympic athletes, including Schmitt.
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The task force also will advise USOPC staff who have regular contact with athletes.
“We don’t want to recreate the wheel. If (the outside experts) have been doing things that are working really well, we want to tap into them and use it for Team USA,” said Amber Donaldson, senior director of sports medicine clinics for the USOPC.
“We wanted to make sure we had athletes and coaches and (national governing body) representation to make sure we have a finger on the pulse of what the real concerns are for the athletes, and use the experts to really bring their institutional knowledge to us.”
In a whistleblower lawsuit filed in February by William Moreau, the former vice president of sports performance accused the USOPC of “not following the standards of care related to the management of suicidal athletes,” and said the organization lacked the “appropriate internal resources” to deal with mental health issues.
The USOPC denied Moreau’s allegations, but they echo complaints made by athletes – including Michael Phelps. They have said that the USOPC only cared about mental health if it affected someone’s performance, and said athletes who wanted to come forward would not for fear it might jeopardize their selection for future teams.
“I don’t need a sports psychologist,” Schmitt said. “I need someone in the mental health field who works with everyday things.”
Donaldson and Karen Cogan, a senior sports psychologist, said the USOPC has had those resources available. Cogan pointed out, for example, that she and the USOPC’s other six full-time sports psychologists are all licensed or license-eligible psychologists. The USOPC also maintains a list of private clinicians throughout the country so athletes can be directed to someone local.
But Donaldson and Cogan acknowledged that the USOPC hasn’t done a good enough job of publicizing the resources that are available. Or in making it clear there will be no retribution for seeking help.
The USOPC needs to be more proactive, they said, not only with athletes but with coaches, staff members and NGBs.
“Oftentimes it is going on and we have had some resources in place and people don’t know about them. If they haven’t requested that, they may not be aware,” Donaldson said. “And part of that is somewhere we can improve. That’s something we’re trying to focus on.”
Putting the onus on athletes to seek help is the biggest barrier that needs to be overcome. Elite athletes, by their very nature, are conditioned to train through injuries, disappointments and setbacks. It should not be a surprise that they would see depression, anxiety and other mental health issues as just one more thing to overcome.
Schmitt said athletes also have to compete on their own. No one is going to finish her race for her, for example. So asking someone for help often won’t even occur to them.
“It’s always been one of those things that you can suppress it and push it down. If it turns into a bigger issue, you figure out way to hide it under the rug,” she said.
“I wish someone out there had an answer of 'OK, this is what needs to be done. We’re going to take leadership in this going forward with it.’”
That is what the task force is designed to do, Donaldson said. And it can’t be of influence soon enough.
While the uncertainty of when or if the Games will happen is over – the International Olympic Committee said last week the Games will be postponed a year, to 2021 – the coming weeks and months will be a potential minefield for many athletes.
With stay-at-home orders in effect across much of the country, most athletes are unable to train and their rigid schedules no longer exist. Financial pressures are exacerbated. Some athletes had very specific plans post-Tokyo, and are having to decide whether to abandon or delay them.
The USOPC opened its counseling services to all athletes, rather than only to those on USOPC insurance, once it was clear the Games were in limbo. It also is keeping the psychiatrist and clinical psychologist hired to accompany the U.S. teams to the Olympics and Paralympics on staff through next summer.
“We are doing everything to get to that gold medal. Nutrition help, physical therapy help, recovery help — that help is there,” Schmitt said. “But then once you do get to that point or fall short of that, there’s nothing left. You’re all on your own. That’s a huge thing that’s needed, knowing those resources are there.”
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