July 28, 2021

What Simone Biles' withdrawal from the Olympics could mean for mental health in sports

Daily Briefing

    Olympic gymnast Simone Biles on Tuesday decided to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympic Games, joining several other elite athletes who in recent months have stepped back from competition due to mental health concerns.

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    Biles withdraws from the Olympics

    Biles on Tuesday announced she would withdraw from the women's team event at the Tokyo Olympics, following up later to say she also would withdraw from the all-around individual competition, the New York Times reports.

    After announcing her withdrawal, Biles told reporters she wasn't physically injured, adding, "It's been really stressful, this Olympic Games." She continued, "At the end of the day, we're human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do."

    Biles, who said she was not sure whether she would continue to compete after the Olympics, did not provide specifics about her mental health issues, though she cited the high pressure she was facing.

    However, Steven Ungerleider, a sports psychologist, pointed out that Biles entered the Olympic Games under uniquely intense circumstances. She served as the face of the Summer Games for NBC, and she spoke out alongside many colleagues against the sexual abuse committed by Lawrence Nassar, the former doctor for the U.S. women's gymnastics team. Further, Biles—as with many other elite athletes—had only limited opportunities to train and compete amid the pandemic.

    A renewed focus on mental health in sports

    With her decision to withdraw from the Olympics, Biles has joined a growing number of elite athletes who have spoken out about their mental health, the New York Times reports. Their ranks include fellow Olympian Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from two Grand Slam tennis events earlier this year to focus on her mental health.

    According to Hillary Cauthen, a clinical sports psychologist, this more open acknowledgement of mental health in sports started in 2015 and 2016, when the NCAA developed a mental health initiative and several prominent athletes shared their own mental health conditions.

    For instance, before the 2016 Summer Games, swimmer Michael Phelps started publicly discussing his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. Since then, other elite athletes—including figure skater Gracie Gold and NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love—have spoken publicly about their struggles with anxiety and depression.

    Biles' decision was met with praise from many, who said her announcement provided a powerful example of how to respond to and address overwhelming levels of pressure.

    "We have a fundamental misconception of what it means to be tough," Steve Magness, a performance coach for Olympians, said. "It's not gritting our teeth through everything; it's having the space to make the right choice despite pressure, stress, and fatigue."

    Citing Biles' underperformance in two events prior to her announcement, Magness added, "Performance is all about self-awareness. You are trying to match your skills on that day with the demand of the event. So Simone is aware when to go for broke and pull out the big difficulty tasks, but she also knows when she is slightly off and needs to scale it down slightly."

    Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist said that—especially amid the difficulties of the pandemic—candid disclosures by Biles, Osaka, and other athletes are "really important for the everyday Joe to do the same thing. It sort of gives them permission."

    "I applaud the fact she was able to ascertain that she wasn't in the right state of mind and step back," he added. "What a hard thing to do. There was so much pressure to continue. And she was able to find the strength to say, 'No, this is not right.'" (Longman, New York Times, 7/28; Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated, 7/27; Crouse, New York Times, 7/27)

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