When Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic gymnastics team final competition on Tuesday last week, and later from the individual all-around final before it began Thursday, she ignited a national conversation about the mental health of athletes.
Simone didn’t withdraw because of a torn ligament or broken bone. Instead, she cited a mental block that gymnasts call “the twisties” — a cutesy name for a scary and dangerous lack of air awareness. Her decisions prompted many to question how an elite athlete at the top of her career, used to competing through immense pressure combined with painful injuries and the grinding wear and tear of her sport could be felled by…her brain?
Simone is the latest in a string of athletes — specifically Black women athletes — to prioritize her mental health despite incredible pressure to compete. In May, Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open, saying she needed to tend to her mental health and revealing a long-term battle with depression. And, when Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the Olympics because of marijuana use, she said she had used the drug to cope with the emotional pain of her mother’s death, adding “Don’t judge me. I am human.… I just happen to run a little faster.” Before these three, Michael Phelps revealed in 2018 that he contemplated suicide even as he became the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.
As more and more open up about the debilitating mental health impact being a revered athlete can have, we’re reminded that winning competitions isn’t the only way they can show strength.
“Sports culture has consistently prioritized winning over well-being, which has reinforced the idea that it’s more important to perform well than to take care of yourself mentally and emotionally,” said Annie Christman, 23, a former Division I gymnast at Brown University and a co-founder of Galea Health, a platform that links athletes to therapists and sports psychologists who understand the athlete experience.
We all have mental health, and Lisa Bonta Sumii, a licensed clinical social worker in California and Nevada, points out most of us will experience a mental health challenge or a mental illness. Do elite athletes experience mental health challenges differently than the rest of us? No, says Bonta Sumii, who has a specialty in mental sport performance and works with collegiate, professional, and Olympic athletes. But she identified two things top athletes must contend with that differentiates their struggles: Pressure and athlete identity. “Pressure is a form of stress,” said Bonta Sumii. “Pressure to perform can come from coaches, from within, from parents, or from a particular competition, game, or race.”
And how athletes perform, said Bonta Sumii, can be intensely tied to how they view themselves, their core identity. Failing to perform can lead athletes to label themselves as losers “Coping with pressure and managing athlete identity are key to the elite athlete’s mental health,” Bonta Sumii said. Additionally, she added, athletes have higher rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). A 2017 study showed that college athletes experience OCD at twice the rate of the rest of the population. Eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder, said Bonta Sumii, all affect the elite athlete population.
But in the five years since the last Olympics in 2016, athletes at the top of their game — whether Olympians or professional athletes in the big leagues — discussing their prioritization of mental health has become a welcome trend.
Christman credited athletes who are using social media to advocate for mental health awareness. “The more athletes use their voices and platforms to change the narrative about mental health, the more sports culture has shifted to view vulnerability as a strength rather than a weakness,” she said. “We still have a long way to go, but it’s inspiring to see the incredible progress that’s been made in the last few years.”