Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics: A Major and Long Overdue Discussion About Mental Health and Sports
By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
When the news dropped just hours ago, that the seemingly unstoppable gymnast, Simone Biles, the darling of the Olympics who was heavily favored and poised to take Team USA’s women gymnastics right to the top of the podium, pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final in the middle of the event. Following her performance on the vault, Biles left the arena and Team USA went on without her to claim silver in the event.
Why did she pull out?
"After the performance I did, I just didn't want to go on," she said. "I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now. "We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do. "I don't trust myself as much anymore. Maybe it's getting older. There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world. "We're not just athletes. We're people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.
"I didn't want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt. I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped. "It's so big, it's the Olympic Games. At the end of the day we don't want to be carried out of there on a stretcher."
Elite athletes, especially during the Olympics, face an insurmountable amount of pressure when they step up to competition. Years of training, so much of their lives devoted and sacrificed in pursuit of this goal. Pressure comes from within and outside, friends, family, coaches, fans, and media. The Olympics is the most watched event in the world, so athletes like Biles are really carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. To be an Olympic athlete requires an extremely high level of mental toughness, grit, resilience and fortitude to handle the rigors of training and competition, but that doesn’t mean athletes aren’t infallible. In 2016, Biles roared onto the scene, quickly established herself as a force to be reckon with and came home with four gold medals and a bronze, the most for any gymnast, ever. In a sport where athletes peak performance generally hits just after puberty, Biles, at 24, is considered a senior. Going into the Tokyo Olympics with so much pressure on her, it’s easy for us to forget that she is human and not infallible to the pressures of competition.
Scoring her lowest Olympic vault score was the straw the broke the camel’s back for Bile, who declared she needed to step away. Regardless of her physical capabilities, if she is not fully engaged mentally, then competing in a sport like gymnastics can be devastating. Yet, what kind of support do elite athletes like Simone Biles have?
Sports psychology is still a very young field, with a lot of teams and organizations who don’t fully comprehend the need for these professionals to have on staff. Many athletes are hesitant to see a sports psychologist because “they’re not sick” but it’s not about being sick. Athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open last spring for mental health reasons, are not sick. Facing the rigors of competition, especially in elite level sports, requires the extra levels of support to help offload this pressure and stress. It should never get to a point where an athlete must leave the middle of the highest level of competition in the world to protect their mental health, because elite level teams like Team USA need to ensure their athletes have the support staff and sports psychologists on hand throughout the entire journey. A sports psychologist on staff isn't going to be able to help Biles during the Olympics, it's a member of the staff that should've been there with her during the last several years of training. It's like putting a band aid on a pipe after it's already burst.
Starting from the youth, high school and college level of sports, athletes face many issues that can affect their psychosocial health, from body dysmorphia, social competitive pressure, injury risk and yes, the systemic levels of sexual assault on athletes that exists within the organizations as well. These athletes need the resources and safe space where they can offload this pressure and find support from qualified sport psychology practitioners who can help ensure that their mental fitness is as strong as their physical fitness. Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles remind us for the need to make this happen, to invest into sport psychologists and mental health practitioners for athletes. As sports professionals and leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our athletes, above all else.
Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias via Wikimedia Commons
David "Dirk" Smith M.Sc, SDL, CSCS, (He/Him) is a sport psychology expert, strength & conditioning coach, swimming coach, sports diversity leader, published research scientist, teacher, writer, journalist, and athlete. He brings over 12 years of experience, education, and training to empower athletes to build self efficacy, strength, confidence, and express themselves through sport.