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The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, due to the new coronavirus pandemic, has had many different impacts, including on the mental health and motivation of the athletes themselves.

The extent of this has been hard to judge in Japan, where most Olympic hopefuls have said only that the delay will give them more time to prepare.

Swimmer Daiya Seto has been one of the few who has deviated from this script.

Speaking at an event last month, Seto, the bronze medalist in the 400-meter individual medley at the 2016 Rio Olympics, said he had struggled mentally because of the postponement of the 2020 Summer Games.

Since returning to the pool after the lifting of training restrictions imposed during Japan’s state of emergency earlier this year, Seto has found that while the physical toll hasn’t been as great as he expected, he’s struggled to rediscover his motivation.

“To be honest, I’ve lost myself and I don’t even know how to get my morale back (ahead of the Olympics),” Seto said. “It’s been really tough for me and I’m in a state that I don’t even know what I would like to do and what goals I should aim for right now.”

Hideaki Takai, an expert in mental training for sports and an associate professor at Nippon Sport Science University, believes the postponement of the games and the continuing uncertainty over whether it will be possible to hold the Olympics and Paralympics next summer are weighing heavily on athletes from a psychological perspective.

Takai is currently helping several elite athletes work through these issues, including some who have already clinched berths in the Tokyo Games.

“There’s these two athletes who I’m supporting in mental training, and they are the extremes,” Takai told The Japan Times. “One, who is younger, insists that he is even more certain he will win gold (at the Olympics) because he can practice even more. He says he can win gold, not even silver.”

At the other end of the scale, Takai said, is an emerging talent aiming to break through for a podium finish.

Nippon Sport Science University associate professor Hideaki Takai speaks during an online interview. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
Nippon Sport Science University associate professor Hideaki Takai speaks during an online interview. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

“They were based overseas but can’t do that now,” Takai said. “So now that athlete practices in Japan, where they don’t have other athletes at the same level to train with, they feel like their athletic level has dropped. They’d been coached by a foreign coaching staff, but now the athlete wants to practice alone and that’s affecting them mentally.”

In a sense, raising a person’s morale is tougher than building them up physically.

The Olympics and Paralympics, still nearly a whole year away, may not prove to be concrete enough goals for athletes looking to raise their motivation.

Takai said that he would instruct athletes he works with to look closer, rather than too far ahead.

“You’re in situations where it’s difficult for you to set goals right now,” the 39-year-old said. “So what we do is monitor their daily training to make sure the athlete can identify issues to overcome on their own. And the next day, the athlete tries to overcome them and we give an assessment. By doing things like that, we allow the athletes to recognize their own development.”

Even though marquee events such as the Olympics are often presented as the ultimate goal for elite athletes, in the past it’s often been said that Japanese athletes struggle under the spotlight. Takai, though, attributes that type of thinking to a time when the country’s top athletes trained almost exclusively in Japan.

“Japanese athletes had previously not had chances to compete with athletes from other countries,” he said. “But now, there are many who are based abroad and experience so many international opportunities, such as the World Cup.

“The Japan Olympic Committee and each national federation have increased development funds for their athletes as well, which has allowed them to train in different places. And as far as I’ve seen, their performance levels in training and in tournaments are not too different now.”

Takai, who works with the JOC as well as the All-Japan Archery Federation, did note that not all athletes necessarily require mental training, as the benefit of psychological support varies from person to person.

He hopes, however, that athletes will seek such support if they believe they can gain something positive from the experience.

“If athletes have just a little anxiety in their mental state and think they are not able to control their mindset, I’d say they should feel free to come and consult (mental trainers) like us,” Takai said.

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