2021 Notebook: For athletes, mental health took center stage

BACKGROUND: It’s been a year when mental health has come to prominence in the world of sports – led by two female athletes, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.

Biles, the American gymnastics star, claimed her seventh and second Olympic medal in Tokyo by finishing third in the balance beam final on August 3. It was a week after she had dropped out of several competitions to deal with an intimidating mindset. It prevents the gymnast from safely performing high-level movements.

This was two months after Osaka withdrew from the French Open before the second round to take a mental health break after announcing that she would not take part in the press conferences in Paris. She also sat outside Wimbledon before the Tokyo Olympics, igniting the cauldron as one of Japan’s most famous athletes.

Together, their epic stories led the way into a new, more in-depth conversation about emotional health and athletes.

Here, some of the Associated Press journalists involved in the coverage reflect on the story and their own experiences.

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Ashley Landis, the AP photographer who covered Biles at the Tokyo Olympics:

I guess all of us who were covering it, didn’t really know what was going on. right? So you are watching the sporting action in front of you with one of the most famous athletes in the world. And see her fall. And I think everyone assumed she had an ankle injury or she had a leg injury or some kind of physical injury. And, of course, you will switch to automatic mode, in which there is a very famous injured athlete.

There are two things that really surprised me that day. The first is that her mental health issues were largely treated as physical injury. So much so that they put her back where they examined her with a doctor and took her to the injury room. …there’s a picture I took that’s my favorite picture from that day where the rings were on top of her putting her hand over her mouth and you could just tell on her face that she was like, “Oh no.” This was a really difficult moment for her. But the way she supported her team and came back and encouraged everyone, brought everyone together and told them okay, she came out. You guys should take it from here. And the way she became such a cheerleader and coach after that, that she would walk around and carry chalk back then, to everyone, you know, give them chalk and carry their stuff. And, you know, she became this–instead of the sports star that she was, she became this assistant coach.

I guess it took someone like her to do what she did to highlight it, right? Because I think, you know, professional athletes and even high-level amateur athletes, student athletes, anybody under the spotlight, there’s a lot of pressure. …and so I think it takes someone of the highest caliber like her to highlight that. I don’t think it will ever be the same. I don’t think the mental health of athletes will be treated in the same way.

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Gina Fryer, sports writer for the Associated Press:

Interestingly, I think Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka make it a good idea for top male athletes to feel comfortable saying that they, too, struggle with their mental health. It was a huge takeaway for me. We’ve seen a lot through the NFL, the past few months and I really think the dam has broken. I know Michael Phelps has been open about this for a year now. But really, when Osaka and Biles publicly took their stand in Tokyo, it was just a ripple effect across all forms of athletics. And you know, when you see the best players in the NFL who play through anything he says, “Hey, I need to step back from the team and focus on me,” I think it all goes back to the summer and these two players, saying, “No, it’s okay. No. It’s okay to say that I need to take care of my personal issues.”

It is no longer a stain. I also think the fear of “Will I lose my job if I do this?” It might cut back a little bit because teams, organizations, leagues would really look like bad people and out of touch… if they said, ‘Oh, you can’t play on Sunday, you’re fired. You know, we have to cut you off because, you know, you might have a mental breakdown if you play. And you feel like you need to get away but we can’t stand that.” The stigma is gone.

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Will Graves, a sports writer for the Associated Press covering gymnastics as rhythm:

I’m sure she will be analyzed for the rest of her life about what exactly happened and what led to the “ups and downs” and whatever else. But I think people should stop to realize that in general this happens a lot with sports. We treat these athletes, especially athletes, as avatars, right? Avatars of who we are, what we want to represent, how we want to know if our son is the best. Simon basically said, “Hey, I’m a full-fledged, 3D person.” And, you know, I think realizing that right now is something we’ll be talking about for a long time, whether or not that’s going to be the big picture trend. I think what you did helped make it safer for athletes to talk about their mental health. …not a major title you would have seen in 2016 or 2015. I think this is a unique title for 2021.

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For a complete overview of the events that shaped 2021, A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Pictures, a collection of AP photos and journalists’ memories, is now available: https://www.ap.org/books/year-that- changed-us

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