LITTLE CHUTE, Wis. (WFRV) – At the Olympics, we watch athletes as they go through the best and unfortunately sometimes the worst moments of their lives.
There have been some of those ‘worst moments’ for several high-profile athletes at the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. All the pressure of expectations can affect the mental health of these athletes, which is especially concerning for athletes who are still teenagers.
One of those teenage athletes is 15-year-old Russian Olympic Committee figure skater Kamila Valieva.
After failing a drug test, the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed her to continue to compete because the full investigation into the positive test would take months to complete and because she’s a minor, not allowing her to compete could cause irreparable harm.
The ruling by the Court of Arbitration was controversial with many prominent people in the figure-skating community saying that they thought Valieva should be barred from competing.
Valieva led after the short program in the woman’s individual figure skating competition but, as the world watched, struggled in the free skate falling or stumbling several times.
She broke down into tears as judges revealed her score and she realized she had finished off the podium in fourth place.
Valieva was the favorite to win the competition.
“It was tragic, it’s just a lot of pressure on the young athlete to perform,” said Alan Chu who is the chair of the master’s program in sports, exercise, and performance psychology at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay.
After everything transpired, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach noted a lack of compassion from her coaches after Valieva performed poorly in the free skate.
“When I saw how she was received by her entourage in what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling,” said Chu.
Valieva wasn’t the only Russian figure skater in tears after the competition. Her teammate 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova also was very emotional after finishing in second place. The Associated Press reports Trusova shouted ‘I hate this sport, I won’t go on the ice again,’ and initially refused to participate in the medal ceremony.
As coaches tried to comfort Valieva and Trusova, the Russian Olympic Committee athlete who won the competition, Anna Shcherbakova, sat alone clutching a stuffed animal.
The emotional night in women’s figure skating coupled with memorable images of United States skier Mikaela Shiffrin crying on the side of the mountain after not performing up to her expectations has thrust mental health, especially for young athletes, to the forefront of conversations.
“I think we should create a better culture that supports an athlete and talk about mental health because the more we talk about it the more we normalize those experiences,” said Chu.
Chu said athletes should avoid going on social media ahead of the competition to avoid negative comments and people putting unneeded pressure on their performances.
For those of us who aren’t athletes but use social media, Chu said it’s important to be kind and supportive when you post something because athletes see it.
Chu said experiences like what Valieva went through during these Olympics can have a long-term impact on mental health. He said he hopes that she has a good support team around her.
“Treating her like a human being along with an athlete realizing that (they are human) is very critical,” said Chu.
In terms of helping somebody who is struggling with pressure or has experienced competition-related mental health trauma, Chu said one of the best things you can do is listen to them without judgment.
On Friday, Valieva returned to Russia to a waiting crowd of supporters chanting her name.