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Japan improving its management of athlete well-being

This is an excerpt from Contemporary Sport Management 7th Edition With HK Propel Access by Paul M. Pedersen & Lucie Thibault.

By Ceyda Mumcu, Elsa Kristiansen, Ashleigh-Jane Thompson

As the stars of the sport industry, high-performance athletes are often under immense pressure and consequently experience mental health issues. For example, Michael Phelps, one of the most decorated Olympians, disclosed living with depression and anxiety, and he openly admitted that it was hard for him to seek help. In 2020, the importance of mental health was highlighted in an IOC-conducted survey among thousands of athletes, entourage, and stakeholders from 135 countries (IOC, 2020b). Responding to the question What are you currently finding most challenging?, both athletes and entourage highlighted mental health as important. Keep in mind that many other challenges directly and indirectly affect athletes’ mental health and well-being. Having a system that can help athletes with mental health issues is therefore essential for athletes. Table 12.2 summarizes the IOC’s Athlete365 Survey Findings.

International focus on mental health issues is increasing, which is particularly important in cultures where mental health issues are more stigmatized than in the United States and other Western countries. According to media reports, high-performance athletes in Japan were facing mental health issues due to the pressure caused by hosting the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in their own country. However, the extent of mental health in elite athletes is not well known, and the actual state of the support system is not clear in Japan. With the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for such a support system became clearly apparent; many athletes felt a little lost due to lack of concrete goals to train for, others retired, and some came back from retirement. Thus, the global pandemic made it clear that management of athlete mental health and well-being must be a priority.

The Japan High Performance Sport Center (HPSC) delivers policies for high-performance sports, and it guides national governing bodies (NGB) of sports with applied research programs through its two branches: Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS) and National Training Center. One research project with top priority is how to better manage the well-being of high-performance athletes. Dr. Taisuke Kinugasa, who works as a senior sport scientist at HPSC, explained the sequence of steps taken for this new initiative.

At the beginning of 2020, an international group of experts and researchers held a consensus meeting to conduct a systematic literature review and establish a consensus on definitions of mental health and well-being. In the meeting, mental health was seen as a dynamic state of psychological, physical, and social well-being in accordance with the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, and well-being ranged in a continuum from mental health to mental illness. A holistic model adapted to the Japanese context and social support needed at the system level were also discussed.

In order to adapt the model to a Japanese context, the next step will be to understand the needs of athletes and NGBs of sports and collect insights from them. With the knowledge of the most apparent needs, HPSC will then implement the new management system of high-performance athlete mental health and well-being, and it will serve as a point of contact and a place to receive help in Japan.