For more than a decade, Michael Phelps ruled the pool, holding the all-time record for Olympic medals (28 medals for Team USA, 23 of them gold). But underneath the surface, he said he didn’t recognize himself as a person.
At the time, mental health stigma forced Phelps, now 37, to submerge his feelings until depression and anxiety began to spill over into suicidal thoughts and substance abuse. Therapy, social changes, and a daily routine helped turn things around.
“When I was competing, I thought of myself as a swimmer, not a human being. I was just a kid in a cap and goggles who was pretty good at bobbing up and down the pool,” Phelps told Insider in an interview about his partnership with the online behavioral health company Talkspace.
“The work I’ve done has allowed me to look in the mirror and appreciate who I see, good, bad and ugly,” she said.
While most of us know that taking care of our physical health and fitness is important, Phelps said it’s easy to forget to pay equal attention to our mental health, especially if you’re under pressure to perform, on the field. or in daily life.
Phelps said acknowledging his mental health at the peak of his career would have seemed like a “sign of weakness.”
Now, more athletes are opening up about experiences with depression, anxiety and the pressure to perform at an elite level, from gymnast Simone Biles who prioritized self-care at the 2021 Olympics to rising star ‘NBA Tyrell Terry who retired due to anxiety.
“I think the stigma is still there, but the door is kind of open for people to talk about it,” Phelps said. “Save lives”.
While more structural mental health support is needed, we can all start taking better care of ourselves with routines like journaling, getting more sleep, and kicking bad habits to perform better, whether it’s the Olympics, -five work, or in our personal lives, Phelps said.
Athletes have weight rooms for training, why not for mental health?
Elite athletes stop at nothing to take the best care of their bodies, and we should all think about mental health the same way, Phelps said.
If conditions like depression, anxiety and stress were treated in the same way as physical injuries, it could save lives and greatly improve people’s ability to be successful in any area of life they choose, he said.
“If you go to a training room or weight room for any college or pro team, they will have anything and everything they need. If so, why don’t we have another section dedicated to mental health?” Phelps said.
Despite being the most decorated Olympian in history, Phelps said he was “scared as hell” of going to therapy for the first time, but that doing so and developing a mental health routine allowed him to feel like he could truly be yourself.
“I haven’t fully taken care of myself for 20 years. Starting from the top, prioritizing mental health, making it a daily routine has given me the ability to become a better version of myself,” Phelps said.
Other athletes who have spoken out about the need for mental health support in competitive sports include tennis greats Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams, NBA player Kevin Love and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman. Raisman previously told Insider that she was so exhausted from the competition that she struggled to wash her hair and she said she didn’t trust USA Gymnastics to care for athletes’ mental health.
Simple daily habits like journaling can have a real impact
Phelps said one of her strategies for better mental health is to stay consistent with small steps every day.
A key habit is journaling to put his thoughts and emotions on paper. Previously, she said she struggled to compartmentalize or avoid her feelings about her, joking that if suppressing emotions were an Olympic sport, she could “win a handful of gold medals” for it.
His routine has also helped kick bad habits: Phelps makes a point of avoiding electronics at night so he can get enough sleep to keep his mind and body healthy.
Phelps also said that every day he finds activities that bring him joy. For him, that’s lifting weights at the gym. But whatever you choose, the key is to make time for it every day.
“If you want to start the new year by prioritizing your mental health, then let’s get into a rhythm or routine of good habits,” Phelps said. “Focus on what you can control every day.”