Mental Health: The New Gold in Sports
Former Olympic athlete and Director of the BA/MA in Applied Sports and Performance Psychology Program at University of St. Thomas – Houston, Dr. Lennie Waite demystifies for your audience the mental stressors that can undermine high-stakes professional athletes like Simone Biles and the mental skills training that is crucial to success.
With the Tokyo Olympics behind us, the jaw-dropping decision by the acclaimed gymnast to withdraw from all but one event citing mental health issues leaves an unforgettable footprint in the world of competitive sports. Only a few months earlier, another athlete — tennis player Naomi Osaka — withdrew from the French Open, on account of the toll that news conferences took on her emotional well-being.
As highly accomplished athletes, Biles and Osaka are among the most unlikely competitors anyone could have predicted would put their mental health before the victory.
That is a stark difference from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug performed the vault minutes after she had injured her ankle. At the time, the world applauded her will, her tenacity and her love for the sport.
Times have changed, and few individuals understand the significance of the recent events and the performance pressures better than Dr. Lennie Waite. An expert in sport and performance psychology, Waite earned a Ph.D in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and competed as a track and field athlete in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
As Dr. Waite leads the first cohort of students in UST’s Applied Sports and Performance Psychology Program, she shares her perspective on the recent events. Below is a conversation with Dr. Waite.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
What is the goal of the BA/MA in Applied Sports and Performance Psychology Program, not only as it relates to athlete's performance but also as it applies to executives in various fields?
The program is focused on performance optimization through mental skills training and promoting mental well-being. Everyone who is trying to reach the pinnacle of their field is faced with pressures to perform, expectations, and stressors related to the competitive landscape of competing at the top of their field. Some of the skills that elite athletes use when preparing for the Olympic Games are the same skills that executives use when preparing for the biggest business pitch of their career.
Why did UST decide to establish the BA/MA in Applied Sports and Performance Psychology Program?
Sports Psychology is a growing field with a limited number of graduate programs in Texas. I felt there was a unique opportunity for UST to be a leader in this field. Houston is a prime location for access to sporting and performing arts populations. Our city has so many professional sports teams, collegiate teams, and youth sporting organizations that create a powerful environment. This program focuses on achieving the mentored experiences required to become a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC).
Do you believe the decision Simon Biles made, to withdraw from the competition, will establish a significant precedent in competitive sports?
I think this was a unique situation with a culmination of mental stressors all coming up at once and was truly overwhelming. I think it will remind coaches and athletes of the importance of not only preparing physically for a competition but also mentally. Coaches and athletes know that mental preparation is important, but it often takes a back seat to honing physical skills.
What will be the legacy of Bile's and Osaka's decision in how much pressure coaches, teams, and federations put on their athletes?
I think there will always be pressure. At the end of the day, athletes are compensated for their performance, and coaches, teams, and federations get funding for gold medal counts. We can't get away from the fact that money is directly tied to performance success, but we can better support athletes to help them manage these external pressures.
What lessons are there to be learned from Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka?
Speaking up is good! I think 5 or 10 years ago, athletes suffered in silence more. Now, we are seeing athletes use their platform to advocate for change. Overall, this has a positive impact in destigmatizing mental health and increasing the likelihood that athletes will ask for help and use the mental health and sport psychology resources available to them.
Are those lessons going to be incorporated into the curriculum of the Applied Sport and Performance Psychology Program?
Absolutely! Students will probably get tired of me talking about these high-profile cases by the end of their time in the program.
I am looking forward to using case studies and examples from high-pressure events like the Olympic Games to teach students the importance of supporting the mental well-being of athletes through mental skills training. Students will work directly with athletes and will also use case studies to outline effective interventions and strategies to help support individuals in various performance settings.
Did the pandemic have an impact on this new awareness of mental health?
I think the pandemic shed more light on the importance of mental well-being for all people. Everyone was suddenly more aware of their mental health and the negative effects that uncertainty, isolation, job insecurity, and an overall disruption to their daily routine could have on their mental health. The pandemic opened the conversation even more and allowed for athletes' voices to be heard.
The University of St. Thomas is Houston’s Catholic University. For more than 70 years, UST has graduated students into successful careers in medicine, education, business, public administration and more. As Houston grows, UST will continue to provide the strong leaders and skilled workers needed to meet those demands.