Olympics: Simone Biles Renews Mental Health Talk, but It’s Not Enough
Strong, focused, tough, confident, graceful - These are some of the traits expected in high-performing athletes, almost mirroring those superheroes of our childhood dreams, isn't it?
But, what if these athletes were also emotional, fragile, nervous or anxious? Does this make them any less of a superhero or does it epitomise the mental issues in the world of sports?
American gymnast, Simone Biles nearly fell, bailed on her planned vault.
“I don’t want to do it - I am done,” Biles said and walked away from the team competition at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
"I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being," she said.
Biles, one of the greatest athletes of all time and the biggest star at the Tokyo Olympics, dropping out, with a gold medal hanging in the balance, is commendable.
When Biles walked out of the arena, she did not shy away from talking bravely about the mental health challenges of the sport, and said she hoped that speaking out would have an even more effect than winning gold medals.
She's absolutely right.
The fact that an athlete can pull out, citing mental health concerns, is something that will go a long way..in building that kind of acceptance and people being okay with being able to talk about mental health.Divya Jain, Sport & Counselling Psychologist at Fortis Healthcare
Biles has shown that it's not enough to be physically fit, and that we need to give mental health the same kind of priority as physical health.
But it's a drop in the ocean of the mental health challenges in the sporting world that has been coursing through recently, with prominent athletes like Naomi Osaka, Noah Lyles, Simone Manuel, Michael Phelps among others opening about their struggles.
Athletes Are Human Too
One in five people in the world experience mental health issues at some point in their lives, Jain says.
So, all of us are just as vulnerable, whether we're athletes or not.
But the amount of pressure athletes deal with every single day is phenomenal.
How do you focus? How do you stay motivated? Am I going to get selected? Am I only going to get one opportunity? Is one opportunity going to be my make or break? How do I stand out in the team? Is this the end of the road?
The questions and stressors are endless, psychologists say.
When we talk about pressures in sports, it's important to look at the performance aspect along with the personal well-being of athletes, Jain says.
"I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha!” Biles had said in her Instagram post.
We also have to understand that they are human beings. These are not machines or robots that we expect to perform at breakneck every single time. These are people who have their own thoughts, feelings, experiences.Divya Jain, Sport & Counselling Psychologist at Fortis Healthcare
This is something that needs to be addressed.
Biles and the athletes who have come forward have taught us that even their highly-focused, other-worldly skills does not shield them from the pressure.
Do We Need Elite Athletes to Talk About Mental Health?
“We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. So yes, it is OK not to be OK," Phelps said.
There is no doubt that Biles and other top athletes are phenomenal ambassadors for mental health and that they opened up tough conversations on unprecedented platforms.
But the pressures of sport have always been immense. Then why haven't we talked about it enough?
"The reason we all are putting a spotlight on it is because Biles is a winner," sports scientist and performance coach Shayamlal Vallabhjee says.
"She could only do that because she's the best. If anyone else did that, no one would have noticed."
Some people can't step away from a platform like the Olympics, for which they would have spent an entire life preparing, for the sake of mental health.
They just don't have the luxury of doing that. But that does not mean the issue isn't prevalent for them.
"It doesn't mean that every other athlete on the stage, doesn’t have the same level of anxiety, stress and pressure," Vallabhjee says.
Concrete Measures, Conversation From the Ground
The bottom-line is that with all the progress we've made in sports, our understanding of the mental health issues of athletes is limited.
"Given just how prevalent these problems are, the first step is to talk about them openly," Jain says.
While it's often tough to understand or relate to their struggles, opening up makes it much more acceptable for people and validates their experience.
"But what you're seeing happening here with Simone is because she has risen above the system to be powerful," Vallabhjee says.
For a country like India and many others, where rarely any mental health support staff accompanies the Olympic contingent and where athletes' mental health is poorly understood, Simone Biles is not enough.
What is needed is a lot more conversation about mental health of athletes from the ground up.
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