Finding the ‘happy bubble’: Mental health key for Olympians

Jan 24, 2022, 9:08 AM | Updated: 10:06 am
FILE - United States' Jessie Diggins celebrates winning a cross-country ski sprint event at the FIS...

FILE - United States' Jessie Diggins celebrates winning a cross-country ski sprint event at the FIS Tour de Ski in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. Diggins literally wrote the book on the struggles female athletes face as they try to stay fit while dealing with unrealistic pressures to have a certain body type. (Peter Schneider/Keystone via AP, File)

(Peter Schneider/Keystone via AP, File)

MIDWAY, Utah (AP) — Sean McCann peered at the targets through a spotting scope and used a hand-held magnetic board to mark where the bullets hit. He showed the results to the athlete as they left the range and then grabbed a broom to sweep shell casings off the mat before the next skier arrived.

To a casual observer, McCann appeared to be a U.S. biathlon coach helping his team get ready for the Olympic trials race earlier this season at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center.

But McCann’s not a coach.

He’s a clinical psychologist who works for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee — one of seven assigned to various teams. At certain times of the year, he is “embedded” with the U.S. biathlon team to help them perform at their best. He lives, trains and travels with the athletes and coaches, interacting with them like a friend.

“In psychology, in particular, sports psychology, those relationships of trust are really important,” McCann said. “Part of our job is taking care of the whole person, not just the athlete, because you can’t leave the person at the door.”

He may seem casual, but his presence is serous business.

“Being an elite athlete, being an Olympic athlete is very stressful,” he explained. “You’re constantly measured, constantly challenged. You’re constantly under some sort of environmental stress, so what we do in sports psychology is stress management.”

The issue of mental health in sports became part of the national conversation last year after tennis star Naomi Osaka revealed her bouts with depression. The discussion was amplified when U.S. superstar gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competition at the Tokyo Olympics, choosing her own health and well-being over the demands to perform.

Biles’ courage prompted Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history and an athlete who has been up front about his mental health struggles, to proclaim “it’s OK to not be OK.”

“It was a public education,” McCann said of those mental health revelations. It was helpful for the athletes but also important for the public to hear those messages: Have more compassion and empathy with what the athletes are going through.

Matt Whitcomb, head coach for the U.S. cross country ski team, said tevery athlete works with a sports psychologist. While traveling, they also receive help from their home club coach, national team staff, physical therapists and massage therapists — a whole support network.

U.S. cross country skier Jessie Diggins literally wrote a book on the struggles female athletes face as they try to stay fit while dealing with unrealistic pressures to have a certain body type. Skinny isn’t healthy, she said in her book “Brave Enough” about her journey to recover from bulimia.

Diggins has worked with a sports psychologist since she was 19, she said, and she’s glad more people feel comfortable talking about it.

“For many athletes, there is a priority on mental health that’s coming into focus,” she said. “We all have times when we’re not in a great place and it’s even harder for an athlete when the moment you’re struggling happens to be at the same time as the nation’s spotlight is shining on you.”

Part of her healing process was to talk about her struggles, which was why she wrote the book.

“Yes, I had an eating disorder, but I learned so much about myself going through recovery,” she said. “I learned that it’s ok to reach out for help. I learned that you don’t have to be perfect. I realized that you don’t have to change the body type that you were born with. You have to embrace your strength, try your best and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.”

It’s been a winning strategy.

Diggins wrote her story after she and Kikkan Randall won Team USA’s first-ever Olympic cross-country skiing gold medal in the team sprint at Pyeongchang in 2018. Randall retired but Diggins has gone on to attack the sport with spirit and enthusiasm, winning the overall World Cup title last year and earning repeated podium finishes this year.

She sits in second place in the overall standings heading to the Olympics.

All Olympic sports come with pressure, though McCann notes that biathlon is “crazy”: “It’s two sports that don’t belong together.”

Endurance athletes have the mentality to go as hard and fast as they can, he said. But in shooting, “it’s precision. It’s control. It’s focus. The mentalities are really different.”

So McCann helps the biathletes learn to switch their mindsets depending on where they are in the race. Ski hard when out on the trails, but in the range, execute the shots. “Focus on the process” is a biathlete’s mantra.

Easier said than done.

When a biathlete is shooting, they can’t think about the skier who just came in behind them; or that person’s heavy breathing; or listen to the sound of other targets going down; or shouts from the crowds or boos when you miss; or the announcer who’s broadcasting your progress over the loudspeaker.

And as soon as you think, “If I get this last shot, I’ll win the race,” you’ll miss. The pressure can be overwhelming.

Russia’s Alexander Loginov led the men’s biathlon pursuit race in Oberhof, Germany, on Jan. 9 until the last shooting stage. He missed his last three targets and was skiing penalty laps as France’s Quentin Fillon Maillet hit all his targets and skied to the win. Loginov finished fifth.

Heading to Beijing, Olympic athletes won’t be able to see their friends and family, which will be an additional challenge.

“So we’ll keep our eye on the … whole concept of loneliness that can creep in,” Whitcomb said. “Because that’s probably the biggest danger, but that’s why we build what we’ve built.”

Diggins said she plans to do a lot of FaceTime or Skype with family during the separation.

“So in that way, I hope to keep myself sane,” Diggins said. “I also know that there’s going to be a lot of pressure and a lot of different things pulling at me and pulling at my attention.”

So she worked with her sports psychologist to identify what she might face emotionally while at the Olympics, and made a plan for how to react and respond. That plan includes a prohibition on all interviews 10 days before the Games start.

“It’s really important to be able to focus on the team and focus on that happy bubble,” she said,


Follow Martha Bellisle on Twitter @marthabellisle


More AP Winter Olympics: and

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - Doja Cat performs at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on Sunday, ...
Associated Press

BET Awards return Sunday with Doja Cat as leading nominee

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The BET Awards return Sunday with a live show that could see Doja Cat, Drake and Ari Lennox snag some trophies. Doja Cat enters the show as the leading nominee with six. The chart-topping performer is up for best female R&B-pop artist, best female hip-hop artist, album of the year for […]
23 hours ago
U.S. President Joe Biden, right, waves as he walks past Bavarian mountain riflemen and traditional ...
Associated Press

Biden, G-7 leaders huddle on energy, inflation, Ukraine war

ELMAU, Germany (AP) — President Joe Biden and his Group of Seven allies will huddle Sunday on strategies to secure energy supplies and tackle inflation, aiming to keep the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from splintering the global coalition working to punish Moscow. Biden arrived in Germany’s picturesque Bavarian alps early Sunday morning for […]
23 hours ago
A staff member works at the Yuet Tung China Works, Hong Kong's porcelain factory, in Hong Kong, Wed...
Associated Press

AP PHOTOS: Hong Kong’s last hand-painted porcelain factory

HONG KONG (AP) — Step into Yuet Tung China Works, Hong Kong’s last remaining hand-painted porcelain factory, and you find yourself surrounded by stacks of dinnerware, each piece painstakingly decorated by hand with vibrant motifs of flowers, fruits and animals. Joseph Tso, the third-generation owner of the factory, and his small team are among the […]
23 hours ago
Associated Press

Today in History: June 26, first Harry Potter book published

Today in History Today is Sunday, June 26, the 177th day of 2022. There are 188 days left in the year. Today’s Highlight in History: On June 26, 1945, the charter of the United Nations was signed by 50 countries in San Francisco. On this date: In 1917, the first troops of the American Expeditionary […]
23 hours ago
Associated Press

Rep. Mary Miller calls Roe decision ‘victory for white life’

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. Rep. Mary Miller of Illinois, speaking at a rally Saturday night with former President Donald Trump, called the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade a “victory for white life.” Miller’s spokesman said the Illinois Republican had intended to say the decision was a victory for a “right to life.” […]
23 hours ago
FILE - This Sept. 20, 2017, file photo shows a sign at the Disney store on the Champs Elysees Avenu...
Associated Press

Abortion ruling thrusts companies into divisive arena

The Supreme Court’s decision to end the nation’s constitutional protections for abortion has catapulted businesses of all types into the most divisive corner of politics. Some companies that stayed silent last month — when a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito was leaked to Politico — spoke up for the first time Friday, including The […]
23 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
Finding the ‘happy bubble’: Mental health key for Olympians