The Brain Training of an Olympian

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-8255 whenever you, or someone you know, has thoughts of suicide.

The Vancouver Winter Olympics in February 2010 saw Steve Mesler stand atop a podium, but it was as if he stood at the top of the world. In the four-man bobsled competition, he and his teammates captured the first gold medal for the United States in 62 years. A lifelong pursuit of Olympic gold culminated in Mesler’s victory on the fast (and deadly) ice of the Whistler Sliding Centre.

Mesler, who lives in Calgary, says he’s experiencing grief in stages, starting with speechlessness. When I realized I’d achieved my dream when I was 11 it was quite strange. What kind of person does that? After a few weeks, however, you wake up and realize it isn’t as happy as you imagined it was. There’s nothing that keeps driven people happy forever.”

Steve Holcomb, a fellow medalist and teammate, overdosed on drugs and alcohol in 2017. Jeret ‘Speedy’ Peterson, an aerial skier and silver medalist at the 2018 Winter Olympics, committed suicide in 2018. Pavle Jovanovic, another of Mesler’s former bobsledding teammates, committed suicide shortly thereafter. In spite of the disturbing link between sledding sports and brain injuries, Mesler joined the board of the U.S. In addition to serving on the Olympic Committee, she founded and ran the nonprofit organization Classroom Champions, which brought Olympic athletes to thousands of classrooms. Mesler, however, noticed that something was wrong in 2019. The practice of waking up at 5:30 a.m. was difficult for him. His basement is where he works out. In some instances, his wife found him on the ground in what he calls a sobbing puddle; other times, he fell back asleep on the couch.

We’re just beginning the conversation about how to incorporate mental health into our athletic lives, as the Olympics are over.

Athletes who choose to prioritize mental health could have the greatest impact beyond Tokyo 2020. As Simone Biles revealed the reasons for her absence from most of her competitions as mental health issues, she redefined what it means to be resilient and strong as an athlete. She shed light on the complex interplay of anxiety, stress, and relentless pressure that many elite athletes and normal humans face.

Although exercise is often associated with better mental health, recent data analysis of over 1.2 million adults found that people who exercise more than six hours a week have a greater mental health burden than those who exercise three to five hours a week. (One very important caveat: The authors of the study and experts we spoke with note that it is difficult to determine whether excessive exercise may cause mental health issues, or if excessive exercise may simply be an expression of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or body dysmorphia.)

We’re just beginning the conversation about how to incorporate mental health into our athletic lives, as the Olympics are over. We asked Mesler to share a few tips on balancing self-care with performance that all athletes can apply to their own routine. We also asked experts about what makes them work and how you can take care of your brain while training, whether you’re a gold-medal aspirant or a weekend warrior.

Physical Injuries + Mental Injuries

The depression Mesler was suffering could not be recognized, even when compared to the achievements he had made. Her husband couldn’t, but his wife insisted he get help as soon as possible. Mesler anticipated he would receive counseling after completing a self-assessment for his doctor. Although, the doctor prescribed him medication as soon as possible due to his severe diagnosis.

I had no time to wait, because I was so far behind. Nothing seemed to make sense to me. Mesler states, “I was ashamed, I was unable to think clearly.”. “I did not understand until I was able to put it in physical terms. My athletic ability or accomplishments are not diminished by a hamstring tear or dislocated shoulder, and it’s okay to talk about it. How does having a torn brain affect the accomplishments that I have had or will have in the future?”

Elite performers may find it especially difficult to accept help and embrace vulnerability. The stigma of mental impairment and physical impairment are hard to break, but he saw that mental impairment and physical injury were comparable, and he treated depression with the seriousness it deserved and sought help from family and friends.

When an illness affects the mind, it can be especially challenging to cope. The question ‘who am I?’ arises when you are unable to control your mind.The Practice of Groundedness author Brad Stulberg says, “The Practice of Groundedness takes a ground-up approach to health care. “There are times when you need more. You should always seek help from a professional, such as a psychiatrist or therapist, if you are in trouble.”

Engage in play when practicing

A seventh-place finish in the Torino Winter Olympics caused Mesler to think his Olympic dreams were slipping away, plunging him into what he now recognizes as early signs of depression four years ago. After focusing on this one thing for the past four years, he went out and had a butt-kicking experience. The clearing of my mind and brain was necessary for me. A hobby was needed for me. The following summer, I took up fly fishing.”

He ditched Sunday workouts in Calgary then hiked deep into the Canadian Rockies to search for browns and rainbows from gold-medal trout streams that surrounded his training grounds. It angered his coaches when they found out; they feared that two-and-a-half-hour drives and ten-hour hikes would threaten his speed and strength, and could lead to injuries that would erase decades of training.

Mesler didn’t stay angry for long, though: during his Monday morning training sessions, he posted personal bests in sprints, squats, cleans, and all power work. Having my mind freed from training or failed dreams by being out on the river gave me much energizing power to do everything else,” he says.

The director of the Clinical Exercise Research Center at the University of Southern California, Dr. Todd Schroeder, believes that low intensity outdoor activities like fly fishing can help balance the cocktail of hormones we need to train and recover effectively. Cortisol and epinephrine levels are lowered as well as endorphin levels are boosted.

The following low-intensity, low-stress activities can positively affect your hormonal environment: paddling, hiking, gardening, fishing, biking, floating yoga, swimming, and float down a river. The fat burned by low to moderate intensity exercise compares favorably with the amount of fat burned by high intensity exercise. Many people think they need to work out at high intensities to reap the benefits.

It can also contribute to your identity beyond sport to include outside goals and activities. So, in Messler’s case, even if he struggles, fails, or gets injured, or retires from sport, he doesn’t completely lose himself.

Accept the Suck

Mesler and his former coach Stuart McMillan found themselves bored and stagnant in the middle of the pandemic. It became easier to shrug off workouts or athletic goals as they no longer felt motivated by their usual methods.

In Embrace the Suck, McMillan and Mesler devised an unorthodox remedy: they promised to run five miles every day, do 100 deadlifts every day, and do 100 pushups every day for a month without taking a break. They bet that the combination of arbitrary challenge and friendly accountability might break the funk.

Almost immediately, Mesler noticed positive effects in his life. When Mesler started writing, he got stagnant professional and personal projects moving, and it helped him diagnose and fix nagging issues with his feet and knees that were hindering him.

The Matrix was beginning to appear to Mesler by the third week. The clarity of my thinking was unprecedented. Every activity that you engage in will have this intention behind it, and you will be mentally prepared to take on any challenge, whether you are Olympic athlete or not.”

Stulberg comes up with two important aspects of groundedness McMillan and Messler probably weren’t aware of: acceptance and commitment. Rather than fighting or resisting what is happening around you, accept what is happening even if you don’t like it; commit to believing in and acting according to your core values. Stulberg explains that “you don’t have to feel good in order to move; you have to move so that you can feel good.”

The suck of Mesler may create adverse effects on mortal humans because it is so challenging. Rather, choose what best suits you. “Whenever you do something different for a short period of time and add a social element, compliance is increased and performance is enhanced,” he says.

Having a problem every morning

In high school, Mesler competed in track and field, and then at the University of Florida he was a decathlete. But his lack of strength and size along with continual injuries kept dashing his hopes of getting gold in the summer games.

Mesler’s intense concentration on the prize itself had diminished the joy of his sport and gotten in the way of his progress. The Olympian gold had to be pushed to the background. He needed to focus on incremental problems and solve them one at a time.

Having abandoned track to try out for the U.S. bobsled team due to a chance encounter, he created a new approach with his coaches to tackle one problem each day and attempt to solve it. We addressed size by increasing caloric intake to eight meals a day; post-workout therapy sessions helped resolve lingering injuries and prevent new ones. By focusing on the incremental rewards of incremental progress instead of gold-at-all-costs, Mesler baby-stepped his way to gold anyway.

Any goal can be achieved using this method, whether it is to climb Colorado’s 14ers or overcome anxiety. Divide each major goal into constituent problems (14ers: cost, time, technical difficulty; anxiety: triggers, support options, self-care methods), and record or track your progress. As you follow your process, you will slowly make progress on both fitness and mental health goals.

While Stulberg broadly approves of Mesler’s approach, it’s tilted to satisfy the needs of high achievers. He advises to balance it with the idea of learning to be content with what you have, with not needing a problem to solve everyday to feel fulfilled. For goal-oriented, Type-A folks, Stulberg admits this may feel like torture at first. “But eventually, you learn to just be,” he says. “Sound mental health isn’t either-or, but both-and. It’s about finding the right balance between being and doing, contentment and striving, for your own unique temperament.”

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