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Olympic Meltdown: Why are some American Athletes Struggling to Compete?

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

Like millions of people around the world, I have tuned into the Olympics. Personally, I love the Olympics because it’s the one time that the world cares about my favorite sport—swimming. As a former Division 1, collegiate swimmer, I am glued to the television, genuflecting in awe at their ability to traverse the pool at such an amazing pace.

There were certainly some stand out performances by newcomers Caeleb Dressel (gold medalist in the 50m free, 100m free, 100 fly), Bobby Fink (gold medalist in the 800m and 1500m freestyle) and Lydia Jacoby (gold medalist in the 100 breaststroke). That said, I have to admit that something has felt a bit off with a few of our Olympic veterans. Not just with the swimmers, but also with a number of the American athletes in Japan.

Although athletes from other countries seem to be performing well, there are a number of American athletes seem to be struggling mentally. The most obvious example of this is the American gymnast Simone Biles, who pulled out from the team final and the all-around competition, ultimately taking bronze in the beam. Katie Ledecky, a swimmer who has classically been unbeatable, seems a bit off of her rhythm. Even though she took gold in her signature events, the 800m freestyle and the 1500m freestyle, she did not win those with ease. In swimming, we would say she looked a bit sluggish.

Obviously, both of these young women are human and they are allowed to have a bad day or a bad meet for that matter. Moreover, one could argue that Rio was their prime. Both women were 19 years old and in peak mental and physical condition. In Tokyo, they are now 24 and, some might argue, they’ve lost a step or two. Personally, I don’t buy that argument. The thinking used to be that, for women in swimming and gymnastics, enter your 20s was the death knell for peak performance. However, Dara Torres proved that wisdom as nothing more than an old wives tale when she qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the age of 41 in the 50m freestyle and took home the silver medal.

Indeed, within many sports, we have seen longevity and dominance from older athletes: Serena Williams and Roger Federer are still at the top of the tennis world and they are both 39 years old. Tom Brady won his 7th super bowl at the age of 43. Two decades ago, these types of feats were unthinkable for professional athletes of a certain age. Today, we understand with the right kind of training and diet, an athlete can keep their foot on the gas long beyond when most people would have expected them to retire.

Interestingly, it’s not the physical condition of the athletes, which has leapt out at me while watching these Olympic Games. It’s the mental fatigue. I remember when I was training as a swimmer, my coach would repeat the mantra over and over again: 90% of success in any sport is mental. When I was teenager, I didn’t understand what he meant because empirical evidence suggested otherwise. The guys who were bigger and fitter would always beat me. From my perspective, if I wanted to win, I needed to become more physically dominant.

As a result, I hit the gym and trained constantly. I was a sprinter and specialized in the 50m freestyle. From ages 12 to 16, I grew in size and my times steadily dropped. However, I eventually plateaued and, no matter how much I trained, I struggled to improve. This is when my coach came back to me and said, “You have all the physical training you need to meet your goal. Your problem is you don’t believe in yourself. Your body will follow your mind and, if your mind doesn’t believe that it’s possible, then you’ll never break through the time barrier.”

He was right. I didn’t believe in myself. I was physically tough as nails, but mentally, I was struggling. My coach was telling me something similar to Jesus’ teaching where he says, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt. 17:20) Jesus and my coach were getting at the same end: the only thing separating you from success is belief.

The summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I kept telling myself that anything was possible. I went to the YMCA national meet in Buffalo, NY where teenagers from YMCA teams all over the country gather. In that meet, I was bound and determined to overcome. I ended up taking 5th place out of more than 120 swimmers in the 50m freestyle and I achieved a Junior National time. For context, there are only two higher level times beyond Junior National—Senior National and Olympic Trials. I broke through because I believed in myself. I even won the high school state championship in the 50m freestyle my senior year of high school.

Me on the podium after winning the state 50m freestyle in 1998

I tell you all this because when you get to the Olympic level, the difference in training between each of the swimmers is negligible. They all train like maniacs and push their bodies to the absolute limit. They are all obsessed with nutrition and proper body recovery. Often, the difference between gold, silver and bronze is their mental fitness. How much do they believe in themselves? If your mental fitness is off, even by a little bit, then you will likely not be able to perform to your potential and you will miss the podium.

Which is why this Olympics is so odd. Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles are two of the most mentally tough women on the planet. They have proven time and time again that, under the greatest of pressures, nothing can make them flinch. So why are they, and other Americans, struggling so much to maintain their composure? When Biles was speaking with the press, she said, “…My problem was, why were my body and my mind [not] in sync? And that’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. What happened? Was I tired? Where did the wires not connect? I trained my whole life, I was physically ready, I was fine and then this happens. Something that was so out of my control.”

Biles has posed an excellent question: What is happening to break her mental focus so that she (and others) can’t perform to their potential or, in some instances, at all? Well, maybe it’s just not their year or maybe there’s something else happening among the American population that is impacting their ability to perform. I don’t need to tell you that this past year has been really hard. Perhaps one of the things we underestimate most is the psychological toll the sheer number of deaths cause by the Coronavirus has taken on us.

There have been more than 4 million deaths worldwide from this virus. Until recently in India, the United States was the hardest hit with more than 600,000 deaths. That’s more than all the American soldiers who died in WWII. Everyone knows somebody who has lost a loved one due to COVID. Some of us have even been infected with COVID ourselves. There is not a single person who hasn’t been touched by this virus.

When death is ever present, humans can react in a multitude of ways. One of the most common is that you become inured to the numbers. Wrapping your mind around a statistic as large as 4 million deaths is remarkably challenging. A study performed by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon found that when confronted with mass tragedies, our brains simply cannot comprehend those statistics. We are emotionally incapable of processing how that level of suffering could even exist.

Indeed, this is a big reason why certain people denied that the pandemic was even real. Similar to the way people will deny the reality of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, their minds simply cannot grasp the magnitude of the problem, so their coping strategy is to downplay the issue or deny its existence altogether. This is why nearly a third of our population believes that the pandemic is a hoax driven by the media.

Another way that humans react to a tragedy of this scale is what most of us experienced—stress, sadness, pain, fear and anxiety. Even if you or your loved ones didn’t get sick or die, the pandemic still impacted you emotionally and psychologically. We tend to think of these feelings as happening for a period of time and then dissipating after the event resolves. However, work in the area of epigenetics has begun to change our understanding of how trauma impacts a person.

Epigenetics suggests that the trauma endured by an individual does not simply remain with that individual. Rather, the trauma is passed from one generation to the next at a genetic level. In other words, the trauma you endure isn’t just in your mind, it gets coded into your DNA and passed onto your progeny. For example, when a person is abused, that abuse has the ability to literally alter a person’s DNA. The idea being that our environments change our cells. Therefore, as each of us has endured varying levels of emotional and psychological trauma from the pandemic, the end result of that trauma is the mutation of our DNA.

However, the impact of trauma is likely even deeper than our cells. There is a theory that suggests, even though humans seemingly operate as individual, autonomous units, our consciousness is actually connected together. In other words, the human species is like a singular organism where each individual is connected to the whole and operates as a part of a much larger body. In essence, we are all part of a larger conscious organism—a meta-consciousness.

This idea, derived from panpsychism, is actually gaining traction in the world of physics. I’m not going to get into a long explanation of how panpsychism works (I actually talk about this at length in the new book I’m writing), but if this theory is accurate, then consciousness is not simply a neurocognitive function of the brain as has long been suspected. Instead, consciousness is baked into the fabric of the universe. Consciousness is a fundamental aspect of all physical matter, meaning that we live in a world that is interconnected by consciousness.

To illustrate the practical ramifications of this theory, let’s use the example of the pandemic. The way we normally categorize an experience like the pandemic is by thinking of individual experiences—this person got sick; this person lost their job; this person died, etc. Your experience of the pandemic is limited to yourself and the individuals with whom you are in contact.

According to panpsychism, the societal trauma of dealing with the pandemic is much broader and permeates our consciousness in ways we may not fully be able to comprehend. The theory goes something like this: the symptoms endured by some who contracted the virus are subconsciously being felt by others who have not. In essence, the trauma of one individual can be experienced by others across the species who never had contact with that individual. Indeed, the acuity of this experience is amplified when multiple members of the species experience the same trauma at the same time.

This could explain one of the more perplexing aspects of the pandemic, which is how whole swaths of people, who were not infected with the virus, experienced mental fatigue, cognitive decline and intense feelings of lethargy. The most common explanation is that they contracted the virus and the test missed the antibodies. I'm sure this accounts for a number of cases. Another explanation is the symptoms could be psychosomatic. Given the mind is highly suggestable and controls the feelings of the body, hearing about the symptoms in the news so often made people experience those symptoms without contracting the virus. This is certainly possible, but perhaps there is more at play? If we are all connected by a larger meta-consciousness, then could we be experiencing the suffering of others because of our connection to them?

I’m the first to admit that this theory is not without its problems. Perhaps the most critical issue from my vantage point is the myopic nature of humans. One would think that, if this theory was true, our connection to other people would expand our empathy and sympathy. Instead, we are more self-centered than we've ever been. The proponents of panpsychism explain away this critique by stating that much of this connection and communication is happening at a subconscious level, which is convenient because it renders this theory completely untestable.

However, if what they are claiming is true, then, because it is subconscious, there are certain people who are more in-tune with the meta-consciousness of the human race than others. In particular, this happens among individuals who tend to spend large amounts of time focused on being aware of their mental and physical state. For instance, people who meditate a lot, like Buddhist monks or empaths (a person highly adept at deducing the mental or emotional state of another individual) or, in the case of this article, certain professional athletes.

Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are two women who exhibit extraordinary control over their bodies and minds. They have trained themselves to be tapped into their mental state. They work incessantly in practice on every detail of their performance so that when it comes to competition day, they can simply execute based on instinct rather than having to think about what they are doing (the subconscious vs. the conscious). They are intensely aware of everything they are feeling physically, emotionally and spiritually. Therefore, it is not surprising to me that these two women, who are quite literally the best in the world at what they do, are struggling mentally. My belief is that hindering their ability to perform is something much deeper than simply not feeling prepared. I would argue their struggle to stay mentally focused is the result of being more in touch with their subconscious, which means the feelings of trauma endured by people suffering from the pandemic is getting bubbling to the surface, preventing them from executing in their normal fashion.

I know this might sound like a crazy idea, but shared meta-consciousness is a tantalizing possibility that has the potential to explain a lot about the human species. Indeed, this theory intersects with the Christian faith in remarkable ways, but I always pushed it aside because there was no evidence for its existence. However, with the recent scientific turn towards the notion that consciousness is more than simple brain activity, I’ve been able to take up this subject with renewed vigor.

Perhaps I’m just seeing it everywhere because I am currently researching it in depth, but as I watched Biles and Ledecky struggle, they both exemplify to me this principle of how we can carry the wounds of trauma we did not directly experience. Indeed, this is not simply isolated to Biles and Ledecky. All of us have experienced this on some level or another.

Again, I could be wrong and this notion of panpsychism could be total nonsense. Regardless, my message with this post is simple: Be kind. Be gracious. Be loving. Not just to those amazing athletes who represented our country at the Olympic Games, but also to yourself. It’s been a hard year and half. Sadly, it’s not over yet and looks like it won’t be for some time. Stay strong because we all need each other now more than ever.

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1 Comment

Christopher Glass
Christopher Glass
Aug 04, 2021

While I'm not entirely sold on panpsychism (to reiterate your point, it's rather convenient in a lot of ways), I do agree that it's incredibly important to show understanding and empathy to these individuals. When Naomi Osaka pulled out of Wimbledon because she'd been suffering from mental stress for years, I can't remember her being met with the same vitriol that is being directed toward Biles at the moment. And the complete disregard for understanding--even when other athletes have spoken out in support of her--is disheartening at best. Empathy can be so easily thrown aside, it seems, when nationalism gets involved. If as a society we can be taught to understand and sympathize with someone's mental well-being, I'd hope that…

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