Mental health among athletes spotlighted in tumultuous 2021

Simone Biles now realizes that she was struggling long before she made it to the Tokyo Olympics, the unofficial face of the Games and one of the greatest gymnasts of all time unable to force a smile and move on on the world’s largest stage.

Biles persevered through the widespread sexual and emotional abuse scandal that rocked the gymnastics community. She continued her intense training and preparation for the Olympics through her one-year pandemic delay.

She convinced herself that she was fine.

But when the seven-time Olympic medalist hit the ground running in July for the women’s team final, she wasn’t feeling well. Biles had “sprains,” a phenomenon in which she lost her sense of air because her mind and body couldn’t synchronize, and she walked off the ground.

“I think it’s definitely the pent-up emotions, the attacks over the last couple of years, the trauma that led to that moment when you came out on the world stage, it just cracked,” Biles said.

Realizing that she was not in the right place to compete safely, Biles eventually withdrew from four events. She came back to win a bronze medal on the crossbar, but that shiny piece of equipment represented a much bigger victory for Biles.

Her public admission that she was struggling, which followed a decision months earlier by tennis player Naomi Osaka to quit the French Open and not play Wimbledon, has redefined the mental health debate that has been swirling through the sport.

“It gave a lot of opportunities to a lot of the athletes out there,” Biles said of the effect her decision had on others.

Michael Phelps, a retired swimmer and 23-gold-medal winner, said the day after Biles walked off the ground in Tokyo that the gymnast showed “it’s okay not to be unwell.” Phelps has always been public about his mental health struggles — including admitting he contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics — but Biles opened the discussion wide.

Over the past few years, athletes have begun to openly deal with the anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts they have experienced. But with the growing strains of the pandemic and the support that Biles and Osaka have shown, it’s no longer among the toughest to “get rid of,” or any of the cliched things athletes are supposed to do.

In the past three months:

Atlanta Falcons player Calvin Ridley walked away from the game in October to “focus on my mental health,” he wrote on social media. “This will help me be the best version of myself now and in the future.”

Tennessee Titans receiver AJ Brown shared a video on the one-year anniversary of the day he considered suicide to deal with the depression he was battling during the 2020 Pro Bowl season. “I just wanted to send a positive message that I’m still here. I’m still growing. I’m still learning.”

Philadelphia Eagles enter left Lynne Johnson missed three games to address depression and anxiety. “I’ve been living in hell for a long time. Don’t mobilize it. It’s easy to do. It’s easy to avoid situations you don’t want to go through.”

– 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu said she will take a mental break from tennis and sit down early next season to “reset, recover and grow” after two challenging years that included contracting COVID-19. I could not isolate myself from all that was happening outside the court; He was feeling the collective sadness and turmoil around him and it affected me,” the 21-year-old Canadian wrote on social media.

Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas broke up with his normal private nature on a podcast to discuss the mental health struggles that nearly made him quit racing. Bottas called the podcast “therapeutic” and said he did it for fans in his native Finland because “I usually don’t get involved much under the skin…I think they have a right to get to know me a little better as a human being.”

Greg Miller, a licensed professional counselor for Thriveworks in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, noted that the focus on mental health is not entirely new, and it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who advocated it previously. He also referenced Royce White, who has spoken openly about his struggles while playing basketball in Iowa, but as an NBA rookie in 2012 refused to play because the league lacked a comprehensive mental health program. Royce was, according to Miller, “a canary in a coal mine” about a decade ahead of his time.

While Beals and Osaka helped open the conversation, Miller believes the stigmas surrounding mental health won’t go away. Athletes, particularly males from America’s traditional fabric sports, will still struggle to seek help when needed.

“We were taught as men to be individuals who take care of things with determination and resilience, not society and weakness,” Miller said. “There are pockets of people in the country who see individuals reporting their feelings as weak or lacking in masculinity in general. What you see now among male athletes is nothing new to any man who has ever dealt with mental health issues; it was happening to men across the country. generations ago.

“We, as a collective society, need to take a look at ourselves and determine whether or not the open conversation about mental health depends on strength. Until that happens, male athletes – and men as a whole – will still have a hard time discussing mental health challenges.”

The NBA has a “Mental Health” program and in 2019 the NFL and NFL Players Association formed a Mental Health and Wellness Committee. Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman urged organizations to invest in support systems following an incident in which Iverson Griffin called police to his home and then refused to leave; Griffin has since revealed that he is bipolar.

Most leagues now already have strong mental health and counseling services.

After nearly six months of public dealings with mental health struggles, Biles said “I’m frankly kind of OK with that happening” because it resulted in her receiving help she didn’t realize she needed. If everything hadn’t come to a head on the gymnastics mat in Tokyo, her shock would have followed her.

“Your mind and body are going to stop before you do. My mind and body were fine with everything I was feeling, and it was so annoying.” He said to me like, “That’s enough, you have to go get help.” I would probably continue to suppress her for the rest My life probably.


Associated Press sports writer Will Graves of Pittsburgh contributed to this report.


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