How mental health keys athlete's victory – even in life

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics served as the big stage for the world’s biggest stars to promote the importance of mental health in sports. 

One of the faces of the Tokyo Games, Simone Biles, showed how Olympians are not infallible and had to prioritize their mental health by withdrawing from four events amid the pressure of becoming the most decorated gymnast in the sport’s history. 

Though sports psychology has been practiced for decades, Philippine sports has only started to keep up with elite types of training in the last five years, which includes prioritizing the athletes’ mental health. 

Rappler talks to Hidilyn Diaz’s sports psychologist Karen Trinidad and Philippine boxing team’s mental performance coach Marcus Manalo on how a sound mind has helped Filipino athletes rake in Olympic medals during the country's historic romp in Tokyo.

Bringing it to awareness

Mental health historically has not been an easy topic to discuss publicly due to the stigma of “something is wrong” that is attached to psychology. 

According to Trinidad, who has been working in the Philippine Sports Commission’s (PSC) psychology unit since 2008, her department was not given much attention because of the hesitation of athletes and coaches to visit their offices. 

Psychologists were also the first to be slashed in the Philippine delegations to major tournaments when there are accreditation limitations, but the breakthrough came in the 2017 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia when sports official saw its importance. 

“Because of the ongoing perception, they thought that they didn’t need psychologists and needed more physical therapists and masseuses, but when sports psychologists joined the delegation in 2017, officials saw how much sports psychology helped because the anxiety was very high,” said Trinidad in a mix of English and Filipino. 

In the country’s hosting of the 2019 SEA Games where the Philippines emerged overall champion, the PSC also assigned members of its psychology unit to the different national teams. 

For Manalo, he tries to change the perspective of athletes on mental toughness by using the term “psychological flexibility” instead. 

Like you're expected to be tough all the time. Parang ganoon yung society: ‘Oh dapat hindi ka kinakabahan, dapat walang pressure, hindi ka dapat nape-pressure.’ So, parang ganoon yung common notion natin and it actually doesn't help dahil it makes you rigid,” explained Manalo. 

(You’re expected to be tough all the time. Society would say: ‘You’re not supposed to feel nervous, you’re not supposed to feel pressured.’ That's the common notion and it actually doesn’t help because it makes you rigid.)

‘“But the problem there is that's part of the human experience, like these unpleasant emotions are part of the human experience. What we resist, persists”

Instead of denying emotions borne out of challenging experiences, Manalo encourages athletes to identify and respond to them. 

“Even if there are unpleasant emotions or unpleasant experiences, you can still choose how you're going to respond, you can still choose to perform well, and you don't have to feel good in order to perform well,” added Manalo. 

Motivation, commitment, and life skills

After winning the Olympic silver medal in the 2016 Rio Games, Diaz needed to thrive with the high pressure of returning to the quadrennial meet with no less than a gold medal. 

“Motivation is important. You have to establish why you are doing this. Hidy’s why is very clear because she wanted the gold, specifically,” shared Trinidad, who also encouraged her to believe that she can achieve it. 

Trinidad shared that Diaz first had to establish the right mindset by defining what is failure and success in her athletic career. 

From there, it helped the country’s weightlifting queen become steadfast in her “why” and she managed to build a system that showed her commitment and she learned other life skills while on her road to Tokyo.

“It was God, country, and the next generation for Hidy, since she didn’t want to retire without a successor, that’s why she built a gym,” said Trinidad of Diaz’s commitments.

Diaz then learned how to cook and took care of a French bulldog named Hiro, who eventually died during the pandemic. 

But more importantly, the Philippine’s lone Olympic gold medalist learned proper self-talk and anxiety management that bore fruit in her Tokyo Olympic stint. 

There's always something to be thankful for

Both Trinidad and Manalo agreed gratitude has greatly helped the athletes become more resilient and positive amid the challenges of the Olympic dream. 

Manalo would have weekly sessions with the Philippine boxers over Zoom and would ask them to journal in order to help them develop a mental health routine. 

He would also ask them prompts: "What are the things you improved on? What are the things that you're thankful for? What are your wins for the day? What are your wins this week?" 

“It helps the mind to be better at positive scanning, because by default, our mind is so good at negative scanning like it's so easy for us to see the negative things happening, right?” said Manalo 

But with gratitude, it trains you to ask: ‘What are the things that I am grateful for today?’ Kahit ‘yung simpleng nag-deliver lang for you or nag-prepare ng food mo, pinapasalamatan mo na. So ngayon mas nagiging sensitive ka to positive scanning.” 

(But with gratitude, it trains you to ask: ‘What are the things that I am grateful for today?’ You’ll be thankful for the person who delivered something for you or prepared your food, so you’ll be more sensitive to positive scanning.) 

With mental health preparation a vital part of an athlete’s training, it bears fruit during performance itself as proven by the Philippine boxing team winning three of the country’s four Olympic medals. 

Manalo added that they practice mindfulness, meditation and breath awareness, which are helpful techniques during competition. 

“The untrained mind will just be very reactive. So if your mind is untrained, when you get nervous and pressured, your performance is going to be a reaction to those feelings,” explained Manalo.

“But if you're able to train your mind to recognize and accept the pressure, the anxiety, even the fear, that these are part of the competition process, then they have the capacity to manage it.” 

For Trinidad, she has asked athletes to write down five things they are grateful for everyday for 21 days, but the challenge is to not repeat anything listed. 

She shared that she experienced athletes coming back to her saying that they have nothing else to write, but the sports psychologist trains them to be grateful for the simplest things. 

“That's the idea – even the simple things you have to appreciate. In crunch time, the basic and simple things are the ones neglected, but you really have to look at it from a different perspective,” said Trinidad. 

“So from a habit, it becomes a lifestyle then it becomes a mindset.” 

More than being an athlete

A part of taking care of an athlete’s mental health, especially after major tournaments like the Olympics, is establishing that being an athlete is just a part of their identity. 

Common iyan sa mga high-level athletes dahil talagang sobrang dedicated and determined nila to train for their sport, to get to the highest level minsan mayroong mga ibang aspects ng buhay na siguro hindi rin nila nabibigyan pansin.” 

(It’s common to high-level athletes because they are very dedicated and determined to train for their sport to get to the highest level, so sometimes, there are other parts of their lives that are not given enough attention.) 

Trinidad reminds Diaz that she plays several different roles in her life like being a daughter, a friend, and a girlfriend and that being an athlete is just one of it. 

“We explain it to athletes, especially Olympians that there is life after this,” said Trinidad, who also suggested that athletes take a break from training before mapping out their next plans of action with the elite coaching team. 

The Olympic medalists – Diaz, Nesthy Petecio, Carlo Paalam, and Eumir Marcial – have been models of pursuing other roles outside of sports by joining the military. 

The Association of Boxing Alliances in the Philippines (ABAP) is also in partnership with University of Baguio, which provides the boxers scholarships and the national federation also gets academic tutors for the athletes.

It takes a village

It takes a village to look out for an athlete’s mental health. 

Manalo, who is also the team head of the country’s Olympic boxing squad, and PSC psychology unit head Trinidad believe that everyone has to get involved in taking care of the athlete’s mental wellness. 

“I think it's systemic and we have to do better to give importance to other aspects of their lives and it’s just not fully dedicated to a sport. To be dedicated solely to a sport, it increases the likelihood that your identity is just tied to a single thing then it ends or you get injured, it's extremely hard to adjust,” said Manalo.

Both mental health experts have brought awareness to their respective teams on the importance of mental well-being. 

During Diaz’s Olympic gold-medal performance, Trinidad shared that only three coaches were allowed to be with the Filipina weightlifter and she was assigned to the front of the stage. 

Trinidad informed the coaches on what to tell Diaz before she goes up on stage and was in constant communication with sports nutritionist Jeaneth Aro. 

“So she has instructions on what to say and when to say it.  So for example before Hidy goes up, she will say: ‘You can and you are prepared,’” shared Trinidad. 

According to Manalo, elite athletes who use their platforms to share their testimonies on mental health and advocate for it have helped make the public see the value of overall wellness. 

Even these high-level athletes meron din pala silang na-experience na difficulties. Sometimes ‘yung perception natin parang superhumans sila eh. Pero they struggle rin pala,” said Manalo. 

So nagkakaroon ng understanding ngayon na they have psychological needs as well na kailangan ma-satisfy. Kailangan din nila ‘yung rest, kailangan din nila ‘yung family time, kailangan din nila ‘yung time off from their sport, meron din silang need to feel loved and cared for and to be listened to, and if they need help, they can seek support and seek for help.” 

(Even these high-level athletes experience difficulties. Sometimes we perceive them to be superhumans. But now, there’s an understanding that they have psychological needs that must be satisfied. They also need rest, family time, time off from their sport, they have a need to feel loved and cared for and to be listened to, and if they need help, they can seek support and seek for help.) – Rappler.com

Beatrice Go

More commonly known as Bee, Beatrice Go is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Philippine sports governance, national teams, football, and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.

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