The Tokyo Olympics helped raise awareness on prioritizing mental health in sports. Now, athletes around the world are sharing the pressures they face at the top of their game.
Arzelle Lewis knows what it means to be a champion.
“My senior year, I became All-Conference, and I had some Defensive Player of the Year awards,” Lewis recalled.
Reflecting on his playing days as a Division 1 basketball player at Idaho State, Lewis was on the fast track to success on the court, but something was missing.
“I was at an NBA pre-draft camp. I basically was one of three players with no dad, manager or agent,” said Lewis.
He admits he struggled to play on a top-level without his father in the stands; it was something he was forced to come to terms with as a junior in high school.
“My dad was convicted and given 96 years in prison for three cannabis charges,” said Lewis.
“Once I found that out, to me, it felt like my dad had died, so I was pretty much out there all by myself.”
Lewis says those feelings of isolation brought on extreme pressure and insecurity that showed up during games.
“I didn’t always shoot the ball when I was supposed to shoot the ball,” he said. “I didn’t always take the chance that I could have taken because I didn’t always believe in myself.”
Back then in the early 2000s, Lewis says he ignored his mental state and toughened it out because of the stigma paced around prioritizing mental health, especially in sports.
He’s not alone.
“All of the athletes that I’ve worked with are just people that are just trying to reach their potential,” said Dr. Steve Portenga, performance psychologist with iPerformance Consultants.
“A lot of athletes get into situations, particularly in the Olympics, where they want to achieve and win for not only themselves but everyone who has supported them along the way.”
During the Tokyo Olympics, the topic of athletes prioritizing mental health received global recognition when USA gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the team competition.
“I think in doing what Simone did, a tremendous role model for other athletes, to be able to take a break, hit pause, reflect when they need to,” Portenga said.
Portenga said it’s also helping to raise awareness and maybe even break the stigma attached.
According to a recent Axios study, stories done on mental health and athletes have recently generated at least two million interactions.
“Part of their identity, how they value themselves and how they think other people value them is tied into their performance and that expectation,” said Portenga.
He helps clients to stop connecting their identity with their performance, finding other areas to place value.
Lewis has done just that. He shares his story often, using the lessons, even the tough ones from basketball as a blueprint for his success.
Three years ago, he launched a magazine called Becoming a Champion and is building a mini-mall in Denver set to open soon. He’s on a mission to pour into younger athletes.
“Through my nonprofit, Sweet Feet, I’ve given 12,600 brand new pairs of shoes to kids,” said Lewis. “I’m just trying to expose them to different industries and areas in life that I wasn’t exposed to.”
Now, as an entrepreneur and life coach, he’s instilling fundamentals, confidence, and support and helping to keep mental health at the forefront.
“That’s the importance of really taking care of yourself; mind, body, and soul,” he said.