Mental Health Is More Important Than Physical Strength, Says Olympic Gold Medallist

Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling opens up about the issue of mental health in the high-pressure world of Olympic sport.
October 9, 2020, 10:27am
Joseph Schooling
Credit: Simone Castrovillari

We are publishing a series of stories to coincide with World Mental Health Day on Saturday, Oct. 10. It raises awareness about the importance of mental health and advocates against social stigmas. These are challenging and stressful times. According to the World Health Organization, half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 but most cases go undetected and untreated. Let’s make the world a kinder and happier place for all to live in.


A lot has changed for Olympic Gold Medallist and Singaporean sports royalty Joseph Schooling since he defeated his childhood hero Michael Phelps at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

Then a fresh-faced 21-year-old, Schooling climbed out of the pool having triumphed over the world’s most elite swimmers from South Africa, the U.S. and Hungary - clocking a record 50.39 seconds to bring home Singapore's first-ever Olympic gold. American superstar Phelps came in second.

It was a defining moment in Singapore’s history and a dream come true for Schooling. But the world of competitive sports can be a brutal environment, with staggering pressure placed on young athletes, as demonstrated by damning reports from Japan this year detailing shocking training techniques.

Though Schooling is now a household name, winning over adoring fans and endorsement deals, he told VICE News about struggles with harsh criticism, public scrutiny, and even his own expectations for success.

"In the past, I was always focused on winning and it became a never-ending pursuit of trying to get better," Schooling, now 25, said.

"I want to win more than ever but at the same time, it's also important to strike a balance, letting go of what I can and cannot control - that takes the extra stress and pressure off your shoulders."

Schooling added that swimming was one of the hardest, most physically demanding sports in the world.

"But I believe that mental health can be more important than physical strength. The mind plays a very important part in an athlete's preparation for races so taking care of my mental health is one of the most important parts in my Olympic journey," he said.

Singapore's Joseph Schooling strikes a pose  Photo: Don Wong

(Photo by Don Wong)

Used to positive coverage, Schooling saw the media ridicule him for his weight during the 2019 Southeast Asia games. The comments bothered him but the episode proved to be important and a source of motivation.

"Even I have days when I don't want to do things," Schooling admitted. "But having a strong mindset and sense of purpose propels me to get out of those bad days. Being in my position, I also had to learn that I needed to accept that things, good or bad, were always going to be said. I listen a lot to my coach Sergio Lopez, who taught me very early on to turn the negative into positive."

There is also greater pressure on Schooling to continue his gold medal winning streak at next year's highly-anticipated Tokyo Olympic Games, which were postponed due to the pandemic. The global outbreak disrupted Schooling’s training but he said that he's been coping well.

"The lockdown gave me a lot of time to think and I tried to see the positive in the whole situation," he said. "The delay of the Olympic Games meant having a whole extra year to get physically and mentally stronger. I still trained hard outside the pool and used the time to catch up on shows like Ozark, Money Heist and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, read and connect with friends and family."

And he is prioritizing his mental well-being in a way he has never done before.

"Society has become more aware and people are paying more attention to mental health. It affects your outlook and has a huge impact on your life," Schooling said.

"As long as I give myself the best opportunity, I am happy with that, win or lose. And I think that happiness is the most important thing."