Simone Biles sent shockwaves across the world this week. She announced that she was dropping out of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics to prioritize her mental well-being.
Her decision was met with a myriad of criticism and judgment. Biles is widely renowned for being one of the world’s greatest gymnastic athletes of all time. All of her training has led up to this moment.
Embracing vulnerability is always tricky. But, a decision on this scale will change the stigma of mental health in sports forever.
The discussion of why Simone Biles dropped out of the Olympics is important.
This conversation is an opportunity to raise awareness and help people understand that mental health is medical health.
Why Simone Biles Dropped Out of The Olympics
On Wednesday, the United States Gymnastics team came forward with an official statement regarding Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympic games due to a “medical issue”.
The report shared no further details. Biles then came forward on her own, stating the medical issue was one related to her mental state.
She said, “Today has been really stressful. We had a workout this morning. It went OK, and then just that five and a half hour wait, I was just shaking, could barely nap. I have never felt like this going into a competition before, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, ‘No. I’m mentally not there’”
Biles withdrew from the team event on Tuesday, and without their top teammate, Team USA took home silver medals, while Russia took home gold.
Biles added she would also take Wednesday as a sick day and then reassess with a team doctor if she can compete Thursday in the individual all-around final.
Criticism on Both Sides
Simone is America’s most decorated gymnastic athlete with over 30 Olympic and world championship gold medals. People were expecting her to bring five more gold medals back to the United States in the Tokyo 2021 Summer Olympic games.
It’s no surprise that news of her dropping out of the games last minute came with a lot of judgment.
Disappointment was a common factor across the board, but beyond that, opinions varied considerably.
People who find it hard to empathize with mental illness criticized biles as being “a letdown,” “weak,” and “selfish.”
These judgments are very harsh and disheartening to hear, but I do see this as a lack of understanding.
Alternatively, she’s also been receiving a lot of praise for her bravery in making this decision.
She served as inspiration for anybody with a mental health condition to prioritize their well-being above all else.
The most important lesson to take away from this entire situation is that mental health issues ARE medical issues.
Mental Struggles in Athletes
From students up to professional athletes, there are many issues that we see as far as mental health in sports. Society pushes athletes to have extreme mental toughness.
There is always pressure on them to win in a competitive environment. Coaches also fill their everyday life with rigorous routines.
Putting so much time and effort into one part of your life can lead to imbalances in other aspects of your life.
The issues competitors face are made even more challenging due to the stigma surrounding mental illness in athletes.
They may feel like asking for help is a failure or fear people will treat them differently.
An athlete with a physical injury takes time to recover, but the same isn’t done for a psychological crisis, even though it should be.
It’s essential to recognize what we can all do to help anyone dealing with a psychological issue.
What Are the Most Common Mental Disorders in Athletes?
Some of the disorders most commonly experienced by all types of athletes include:
- Anxiety Disorders: This broad category can include panic disorder, phobic anxiety, performance anxiety, and general anxiety disorders. Anxiety is common among athletes because they can become obsessed with winning or their performance. Performance anxiety means that you often feel overwhelmed about specific parts of your performance.
- Mood Disorders: These can include major depressive disorder, drug-induced disorders, and bipolar disorder. Depression, specifically, is among the most common conditions affects treated by sports psychiatrists.
- Eating Disorders: This is more common in female athletes but occurs in males as well. Athletes may develop an eating disorder to fit into specific weight classes in their sport or when having a lower body weight improves their performance. Swimming, wrestling, diving, and gymnastics are sports with higher rates of athletes diagnosed with eating disorders.
- Personality Disorders: Therapists link personality disorders with narcissism, perfectionism, and extroversion. If you have a personality disorder, you might experience problems with relationships, impulse control issues, or poor coping skills.
- Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): ADHD is somewhat common in athletes, particularly among males, and it could be due to the rewiring of the brain that stems from social media.
- Substance Use Disorders: These disorders can look different in athletes compared to the general population. Student-athletes are more likely to use stimulants, opiates, and alcohol. Stimulant use is a rapidly growing problem among students.
Athletes may be more vulnerable to these issues for a few core reasons.
- Athletes report immense daily stress and pressure that increases the risk of anxiety and symptoms of depression.
- We’re also starting to learn more about possibly hidden head injuries in athletes and how those can affect brain functionality. For example, undiagnosed head injuries can increase your likelihood of developing PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
- Other physical injuries athletes experience (aside from head injuries) can contribute to psychological issues, and problems with coaches, support staff, or other teammates may also factor in.
Is There a Stigma About Mental Health In Sports?
When you’re an elite athlete, the sporting environment demands a focus on mental training, mental skills, and mental toughness as much as anything physical.
Unfortunately, that can translate into the idea that having a mental illness is somehow a weakness.
Many top performers of all ages are afraid to talk to anyone about their mental concerns because of stigma.
They think people will see them as weak or worry their teammates will mock them.
As a formidable athlete, you always want to appear fit, both mentally and physically.
One of the most important things we can do to help athletes struggling is to break down the stigma associated with getting help.
When you seek help, it’s a way to build mental strength and resilience, and that’s a concept that people do not reinforce enough in the sports world.
Other Athletes Raising Mental Health Awareness
The following are some of the well-known athletes who have begun opening up the conversation about mental health in sports:
- Aly Raisman: Two-time Olympic gymnast Ali Raisman has talked about her experience with trauma and subsequent therapy she received related to sexual abuse. Like Biles, she was a victim of sexual abuse from USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasar.
- Ashlyn Harris: The World Cup soccer player has a history of addiction and depression, and aggression. Harris said she now knows her triggers, and thanks to working with therapists and sports psychologists, she feels that therapists have equipped her with the coping mechanisms and resources she needs.
- Kevin Love: Love plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and in 2018 he had a panic attack during a game. He went on to write a personal essay about his experiences for The Players’ Tribune.
- Brandon Marshall: Marshall was an NFL wide receiver, and he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011. Marshall participated in an outpatient program that he said changed his life, and he realizes that you have to talk about what you’re going through.
- Michael Phelps: We mentioned Phelps above, and he’s the most decorated Olympian of all time, so his messages have an impact. Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, and he said that in 2014 he didn’t want to be alive. He talks now about how working with a therapist, keeping a routine, and self-care have helped him manage his thoughts.
In the words of Simone Biles, “At the end of the day, we’re human, too!
We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
If you’re an athlete, or you have a loved one who is, it’s so critical to understand that mental toughness doesn’t mean you hide what you’re going through.
It means instead that you work on being open and honest, reaching out to your support network, and taking advantage of the resources available to you.
The Mental Health Center of San Diego believes that to be physically healthy and perform your best in any sport, you also have to be mentally healthy.
If you’d like to learn more about our program for athletes, please reach out to (858) 258-9883.
We’re here to help you explore the resources that could make an impact in your life, whether you’re an athlete or not.