Mind over athletics: Understanding mental health and its effect on athletes

Tougher competition, money, and digital world place heavy weight on athletes to win; La Crosse doctors say it's too much

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Sports demand a lot from athletes. Doctors say that’s putting more stress on athletes than ever before.

La Crosse health leaders offer advice for parents. Lessons that can keep children safe and the joy of their sport alive. The drive of an athlete ignites at an early age.

“I love to see their smiles and how excited they are when they flip upside down,” said Jane Bower, a gymnastics coach at Performace Elite Gymnastics in La Crosse.

Bower lives for these moments. The moments where children get to play and just be kids.

“I actually grew up in La Crosse and I did gymnastics when I was like five years old at Central High School,” Bower said.

A lot changed since Bower flew through the air in one of the more artistic sports people will find — a sport where athletes defy gravity.

“I have three children who all do gymnastics,” Bower said. “My husband also did a little bit of gymnastics. We’re kinda the gymnastics family.”

Sports changed in other ways, ways that grab doctors’ attention.

“Athletes nowadays across the board are bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic,” said Andrew Jagim, director of sports medicine research at Mayo Clinic Health System.

The competition requires more from gymnasts today Bower said. The skills athletes perform are harder.  The further children progress in their athletic careers, the more the pressure builds to win.

“We’re having fun but it is hard work,” she said.

Bower would know. Her son Allan Bower made the USA Olympic gymnastics team as an alternate.

“It’s amazing,” Bower said.

Athletes at elite levels experience a whole other level of pressure.

“I always said if I could read a gymnast’s mind, I’d be a millionaire,” said Aaron Ross, owner and head coach at Performance Elite Gymnastics in La Crosse.

Ross said even the best athletes have moments where the demand to win is too much.

“She was lost,” Ross said. “She didn’t know where she was at.”

Ross is talking about Simone Biles. One of America’s most decorated Olympians took herself out of the competition after she balked on a skill. It appeared like a small mistake but Ross said the headlines the next day could have read much differently.

“She could have landed on her neck. She could have … then your life is over,” Ross said.

Biles’ decision prompted a worldwide discussion about athletes and their mental wellbeing.

“These young athletes who are really stepping up and saying, ‘No, I’m still a person. I’ve met my limit. I need to take a pause.’ [They’re] really fighting against this idea that they’re a commodity to be traded,” said Chelsea Ale, a clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System.

Ale said parents and coaches play a role in setting boundaries for their children.

“Some of the people who consider themselves the mentally toughest, where we just grin and bear it and push through, may actually be the ones most at risk for burning out,” Ale said.

Biles’ decision sparked a lot of criticism, but Bower said Biles knew her safety and her team’s success mattered more.

“Knowing that it wasn’t just team Simone,” Bower said. “It was team USA.”

Sports Medicine Director Andrew Jagim said pushing someone hard is not worth it when safety is compromised.

“They may come from a great place. They could be trying to help them, but someone needs to step in and try to set limits so that we don’t break that kid down and cause irreparable damage at a young age,” Jagim said.

There are unrealistic expectations placed on athletes at times Ross said.

“Everybody’s putting money on everything,” he said. ” They’re taking the love of the sport out of it.”

There’s life after the final score. Bower’s son already started this journey.

“Now he’s gonna move on to medical school, hopefully,” Bower said. “[He’s] getting married. Life does go on from gymnastics.”

Their passion that sparked at a young age placed them on a path toward success.

“You’ve got your whole life ahead of you,” Ross said. “This is just a piece of it.”

The hope of every coach is they’ll win as husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers of the next generation of competitors, just as they did on the matt.

Mayo Clinic Health System experts also say it’s good for parents to limit social media engagement, not just for athletes but for any child. Ross said it’s also good for kids to fail because that is how they learn and grow.