Laureus Academy Member Michael Johnson on Mental Health: We Need to Listen
By Laureus Academy Member Michael Johnson
When I first heard that Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the French Open due to issues around her mental health, I did not know exactly what was going on. Which is now understandable given Naomi herself recently said that she is still trying to figure it out.
I was working for the BBC when Simone Biles withdrew from competition during the Tokyo Olympics. I had thought a lot about Naomi since the French Open. This time, I decided, I’m going to wait a little bit. Day by day, Simone spoke honestly and in detail and the more she did, the closer we got to understanding. I learned about ‘The Twisties’ – a phenomenon that people in gymnastics have talked about for a long time. The mental side of the sport can completely override the physical talents of even the greatest competitor.
If I see an athlete pull up clutching the back of their thigh, I have a pretty good idea about what is going on. I know what the problem is, I know what it takes to put it right and I understand how that all feels for that athlete.
Mental health is an issue that affects every single one of us. But it is also unique to every single one of us. This isn’t something to be diagnosed and analysed in real time from the broadcast booth or on social media. We need to listen.
Those words – ‘mental health’ – were not used a great deal when I was competing. But the mental side of sport certainly was discussed. Mindset, focus, performance under pressure, expectations, and the work-life balance that is far more complex for athletes … any analysis of athletes from back then is going to deal with these things. And the truth is, there is no hard line between the mental side of sport and the mental health of sportswomen and men. It should be part of the same conversation about how these young people deal with the stress of what they do and the balance they are striking between that job and their life outside sport.
When you get to where I was, or where Naomi and Simone are now, you are doing your job in front of millions of people. No matter how physically prepared you are, there is a mental toll in that. I have trained my whole life for this. I want it so bad. But I may fail. I may never get this opportunity again. I may let my teammates down. My contract might not get renewed. And everyone is watching, all the time.
I can’t tell you what it was like for Naomi or Simone. To understand that, we have to listen to them. But here’s what it was like for me.
Barcelona, 1992. I was 24 years old. Two years undefeated at 200m, the world champion and a heavy favourite to take gold in Spain. Then, right before the Games began, I got food poisoning. After I recovered from the initial effects, I didn’t think the illness would affect me on the track. I felt good. Right until the gun went off to start my heat. At that point, I felt like I was running in someone else’s body. I advanced from that race, to the quarter-final, but I did not make the final.
Even in ’92, Team USA travelled with sports psychologists and I was given an appointment to see one straight away. The team had recognised that what had happened to me was the kind of thing that could lead to what we call a slump: a downward spiral that it’s difficult to get out of. You can start to doubt yourself, and that was certainly happening to me. But as soon as I sat down in that hotel room with the team psychologist, I realised this was not where I needed to be. It might have worked for some people. Not me.
I was lucky. My parents were in Barcelona, as were my brother and sisters (I am the youngest of five). My dad came to my hotel room and I knew he could tell him how I was feeling, what my fears were. And he just listened. Then he told me: ‘You didn’t lose a final. You didn’t win this one. But you didn’t get to compete in it, either’.
This was the biggest disappointment of my career and it wasn’t over when I got on the plane back to the United States. A couple of weeks later I was sitting at home, still thinking about it. And I realise now that I had to think about it. I had to be angry. I had to be disappointed. I had to feel all of that before I could process what had happened.
Eventually, I started to think more and more about the three medalists from Barcelona. Gold, silver and bronze. I had raced each of them a lot in the two years before the Olympics. And they had never beaten me. So I started to realise that if we lined up against each other the next year, the likelihood that I would cross the line first was pretty good. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t lost my mojo. And I hadn’t stopped being the fastest 200m runner in the world.
Atlanta, 1996. At the next Olympics, I was under more pressure than at any other time in my career. Some of it was my own doing. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
When I speak to athletes about these issues, I start from the same place: know yourself. Be as honest as you can be about your strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you, what your fears are. What makes you tick.
By 1996 I knew who I was. I knew that I was happiest, and at my best, under the most intense pressure. When I reminisce about competing, the image I have in my mind is the call room, 30 minutes before an Olympic or World Championships final, me and seven other competitors. In half an hour, one of us is going to have a gold medal and seven of us are not. And I want it to be me. And everyone expects it to be me.
If I didn’t feel confident in those moments, I would not have appealed to the IOC to change the schedule to allow me to compete for the 200m-400m double at a home Olympics. And you know I wouldn’t have worn those golden spikes. That could have ended up very bad.
Malibu, 2018. I had a stroke three years ago. Afterwards, I was rehabilitating both physically and mentally. And right from the start, the mental side of my recovery was far more difficult. On one hand I was literally learning how to walk again – the connections from my brain to that part of my body had been severed. Everything I had taken for granted, the sequence of movements that allow us to walk, had been erased. On the other hand, I was doing all of this work without any certainty that I would recover. I was looking in the mirror and seeing someone who seemed a fraction of who I had been. And I didn’t know if I was going to recover all or any of my movement.
In the end I connected with the way I had felt after Barcelona in 1992. I had to allow myself to feel the fear and the anger and the sadness that was inside me. And then I found my motivation: to recover my quality of life as much as I could. To hike and to cycle and paddle-board and be the same person I was before my stroke.
As I describe that process to you, I would say that these solutions come from within myself. However, the recovery I have made would not have been possible without the support I had from my family, my staff at Michael Johnson Performance and the people with whom I shared my recovery on social media – they spurred me on.
Today is World Mental Health Day. But don’t try to put this issue into a neat box. That’s impossible. It affects the sports stars on your television and the people you share your home with, and it’s completely different for each one of them.
We all sometimes make both our successes and our failures seem bigger than they are. Trevor Moawad was one of my closest friends and one of the best sports mental conditioning coaches out there and he worked with us at Michael Johnson Performance, where we help athletes improve their performance by addressing individual elements. Trevor recently passed away but wrote a book about neutral thinking; staying in the middle and being realistic about each situation.
These are the kind of tools we need to look after ourselves. But we have to look after each other, too. I know my recovery following my stroke happened because of the help I had. I know that when I needed my dad in Barcelona, he was there. I know the best thing we can do when an elite athlete or someone in our lives talks about their mental health: Listen