• Michael Phelps said he spent years suppressing his feelings, to the detriment of his mental health. 
  • He's now teaching his sons how to express themselves and talk about emotion in a healthy way.
  • Phelps said men, and athletes especially, often face stigma for being vulnerable. 

Michael Phelps holds an all-time record for Olympic golds, earning 23 top-level wins for his legendary skill in the pool, but he said he'd have even more medals if avoiding his feelings was a competitive sport.

Now, as a retired athlete and father of three boys, Phelps said he's trying to prevent his sons from making the same mistakes.

"I'm excited to pass along my playbook of things I did well and things I could have done better," Phelps told Insider in an interview about his partnership with online behavioral health company Talkspace.

His sons Boomer (6), Beckett (4), and Maverick (3) have shown an interest in sports — but Phelps is emphasizing that they're developing strategies for mental wellbeing as much as physical fitness. 

"If you do both, you basically become a superhero," he said. 

He said the boys are  learning to talk through their feelings, find strategies to calm down under stress, and communicate their emotions in a healthy ways. 

"I'd like them to be able to express what they're going through and not stuff things down. So far, we're seeing that from our oldest two, and our youngest is learning, partly from watching his brothers," Phelps said. 

Expressing your feelings is key to good mental health

One of the biggest things Phelps is emphasizing with his boys is avoiding compartmentalization — suppressing thoughts and feelings that are challenging or uncomfortable to deal with. 

"If one of my sons' feelings get hurt, we give them a moment to calm themselves down, then we talk them through what they're feeling and why, and that's so important," he said.

Phelps said that for him, going to therapy and journaling regularly helped him get in tune with his emotions after more than a decade of avoiding them.

"I think it's important to get things down on paper rather than holding on to them. I'm able to get back to neutral if I find myself spiraling, and it's based on the work I've done over the past 8 years," he said. 

A technique called 'lion's breath' is helpful for calming down in a stressful moment

Often, it can be challenging to talk through feelings in the heat of the moment, such as when his sons get in a scuffle, so it's important to have a way to cool down first, according to Phelps.

He uses a yoga technique known as lion's breath with his sons, which involves taking a deep breath and roaring to release tension, anger, or anxiety. 

"When they're really frustrated, they can do that, and then they're able to express what happened," Phelps said. 

Research suggests deep breathing techniques can help reduce stress in both children and adults

Men often face stigma for showing emotion

Phelps said it's particularly important that his sons express themselves because gender stereotypes can pressure men and boys to ignore their feelings. 

"For me, as a male athlete, in my career I thought it would be showing a sign of weakness to open up about mental health," he said. "Now it's the direct opposite, and it has saved lives."

More high-profile sportsmen are also speaking out: Lebron James has talked about the importance of men showing emotion, and athletes like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have opened up about mental health issues

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