Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka Are Paving The Way To A More Accepting Sports Industry
This week, world-renowned gymnast Simone Biles made headlines for prioritising her mental health over competing in the Olympics.
The gold-medallist has numerous accolades under her belt, and there were high hopes for her to bring home gold at Tokyo.
However, the 24-year-old announced earlier this week that she was withdrawing herself from the women’s team artistic gymnastics final. It was then revealed that Biles was dealing with a ‘mental issue’.
She later removed herself from the individual all-around competition which was supposed to take part in on Thursday, July 29.
Biles has since been applauded for putting her mental health first. Speaking at a press conference she said, ‘Put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport, and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s okay sometimes to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself.’
While Biles has largely received messages of support, some people have branded the Olympian as ‘selfish’ and, if that’s what focusing on mental health makes you, then I want to be selfish too.
Biles follows Naomi Osaka in removing herself from a sporting event to focus on her mental health. The Japanese tennis player withdrew herself from the French Open in May after refusing to do a post-match press conference. Her refusal to speak to reporters landed her with a $15,000 fine, something which added to the poor mental health she was already experiencing. She later quit the tournament altogether.
Writing in TIME about her experiences, the 23-year-old said:
I communicated that I wanted to skip press conferences at Roland Garros to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health. I stand by that. Athletes are humans.
Athletes should be allowed to occasionally skip media scrutiny for their mental wellbeing.
‘In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms – frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone,’ she continued.
Once upon a time, athletes like Biles and Osaka would have brushed their feelings under the carpet, but people are now coming to realise that mental illness isn’t always something we should just carry on with, the same way a person shouldn’t be expected to continue to compete with a broken arm.
The two women’s bravery shows that we’re all only human – whether you’re a civil servant, a journalist, an Olympic athlete or a musician – and sometimes, you need to mentally rest as much as you do physically.
Speaking to UNILAD about how the immense pressure on athletes like Biles and Osaka can impact their mental wellbeing, counsellor Michelle Ruth said:
Success is what so many of us strive for, but there are some pitfalls when it comes to mental health. Expectation management can be really difficult. The expectation that you will always have this success, or that anything less than success isn’t good enough, can perpetuate a fear of failure.
When this is in the context of professional athletes, who have the added pressure of life in the spotlight and the trolling and abuse that comes when their best isn’t perceived to be good enough, it can be exacerbated. They train to have the physical and emotional resilience to withstand the greatest of pressures, but they aren’t superhuman and sometimes there is a limit to what they can take – just like the rest of us.
Michelle said that while some athletes will get some mental health support, it’s often not consistent.
Addressing Biles’ recent revelations, she added, ‘Simone Biles demonstrated how important it is to put your mental health above anything else and it sent a powerful message to the world. She spoke openly about having a good team around her, who enabled her to make her decision. Not every athlete has this, but they should.’
Biles recently shared a photo on Instagram of Team USA members who helped her through this tough time, writing, ‘Forever thankful to have such an amazing support system by my side.’
Honing in on how important mental health support is for athletes, Michelle said that not only will it help them be ‘in the best position to withstand the pressure of their performance’, but they will also feel ’empowered’ to stand up for themselves when everything’s getting too much.
Michelle concluded, ‘It is also important they are able to maintain good mental health throughout their careers, so that when they reach retirement and contemplate life beyond their sport, they can do this without feeling a sense of failure.’
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone.