First it was Naomi Osaka, now weeks later a tearful Simone Biles. Two of the biggest names in sport have publicly revealed that they struggle with their mental health — and that they could be the catalyst for wider change.
American superstar Biles stunned the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday when she withdrew from the women’s team final, saying: “I need to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.” .”
The 24-year-old already hinted that she felt the immense pressure in the Japanese capital, writing on Instagram: “I really feel like I sometimes have the weight of the world on my shoulders.”
On Wednesday, Biles also withdrew from the all-around final and her participation in the rest of the Olympics is uncertain.
There was an outpouring of sympathy on social media for Biles, who is already a four-time Olympic gold medalist, who went beyond sports.
Henrietta H. Fore, executive director of UNICEF, wrote on Twitter, thanking Biles “for putting her mental health and well-being first — and for showing that it’s okay to take a break. A real sign of strength and courage despite intense pressure.”
“We must protect our minds and bodies.”
Proud of @Simone_Biles for putting her mental health and well-being first – showing that it’s okay to take a break. A real sign of strength and courage under intense pressure. https://t.co/mJmdBClXxN
— Henrietta H. Fore (@unicefchief) July 27, 2021
“Looking back over the past 12 months, these athletes have experienced incredible levels of isolation from alienation” as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, “but there aren’t many people who can really identify with what they’re going through,” Tulio Barbosa, a London-based sports and performance psychology consultant, France told 24.
In Biles’ case, the feeling of being “essentially the face of gymnastics for the US team,” coupled with the uncertainty and isolation leading up to Tokyo, was like a “volcano eruption,” Barbosa said.
“The positive is that it really creates traction and we are talking about this topic,” he added. “Hopefully it will help fight some of the stigma we see on social media [from] the minority of the population… it is good to see that the majority supports it.”
Not just gymnastics
Also on Tuesday, Osaka – which lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony – suffered a shock premature departure in tennis.
As a home hope and one of the faces of the Games, the 23-year-old said there was “a lot of pressure”.
The Japanese had only just returned from a two-month absence from the competition after revealing she was suffering from depression.
Biles and Osaka, who are only seven months old, are certainly not the only young athletes suffering in the public eye.
At Wimbledon earlier this month, 18-year-old Briton Emma Raducanu came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round, only to withdraw from the competition with what was first described as “breathing difficulties”.
The teen went on to explain that the “whole experience caught up with me.”
It’s not just young women. Following Raducanu’s explanation, England and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford said he too suffered something similar when he was a teenager.
In 2018, NBA star Kevin Love said he had a panic attack during a match, while Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and England cricketer Marcus Trescothick have also openly documented their mental struggles.
Pressing the bell
Julie-Ann Tullberg, an expert in sports psychology and sports journalism at Monash University in Australia, told AFP that “mental health has long been swept under the rug as a reason for underperformance at high-pressure sporting events like the Olympics”.
“However, athletes are now willing to talk openly about their pressure,” she said.
People across all walks of life are dealing with “performance anxiety,” Tullberg said, and that has been exacerbated by people around the world living in temporary lockdowns in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“But people are now more willing to talk about it (their mental health),” she said.
“We’re constantly being offered support networks, we’re encouraged to seek support, and people are now taking those options because they’re not as afraid of the consequences when their workplaces are known to be struggling.”
Tullberg said the unprecedented anti-virus measures faced by athletes during the Tokyo Games, where they are largely confined to the Olympic Village, have undoubtedly taken a toll on competitors.
“I think the Olympic Village bubble has a big impact on athletes,” she said.
“They used to be able to go out and party after their events, but now they can’t do that, for the first time in recent history.”
“Where’s the support?”
Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said Biles’ inclusion would help “normalize the conversation.”
“In the athletic world, there has always been an emphasis on appearing physically fit and appearing mentally fit,” she told CBC/Radio-Canada.
“And that can kind of endure silent suffering and further perpetuate self-isolation.”
Aly Raisman, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and a former Biles teammate, said Biles was under tremendous pressure in the months leading up to Tokyo due to high expectations.
“There’s only so much a person can have, she’s human,” Raisman told US television.
The 27-year-old, who retired last year, expressed doubts about what kind of psychological support there was for Biles and other American athletes.
“When I was working out, there really weren’t any resources to talk about our mental health or even ways to understand it,” Raisman told ESPN.
“We need to ask organizations like USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee: What are you doing to support your athletes and how can we keep athletes from feeling like they’re having a hard time not finishing the competition?”