Embracing Mental Health: Sports Edition

By: Muskan Kumar — Correspondent

Even though it has only been half a year since the Summer Olympics was held in Tokyo, the Winter Olympics in Beijing are already here. Athletes are once again competing at the highest level of competition in the world, bridging together their physical and mental fitness for the performances of their lives.

With them, the conversation around mental health and athletes may return to take center stage.

At the Tokyo Olympics last year, Simone Biles’ decision to prioritize her well-being by withdrawing from the Artistic Gymnastics Team Finals has inspired athletes and others alike to value their mental well-being just as they would their physical.

Sunisia Lee, who won gold in the Artistic Gymnastics All-Around Finals, says that Biles’ actions have changed the way athletes view their mental health. “It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us,” said Lee.

As a swimmer who has competed on the international level, Elise Morley agrees, saying that athletes prioritizing their mental health on the world stage is a step in the right direction. 

Morley recently competed at the US nationals and is a para-athlete who has swum for Team USA at the Pan American Games in 2019.  

She says that mental health has been a struggle for her for much of her swimming career. “I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression months before my international debut, and I have taken breaks from the sport in the past in order to prioritize my mental health.”

“I think it’s very easy to push too far in sports,” added Morley. “We are often conditioned to believe that we should sacrifice everything for sport, and I think it’s important to emphasize to youth that it isn’t the end all be all, and sport is meant to help, not hinder, our health.”

Dr. Rosenthal, a professor of health and kinesiology at Bridgewater State University, says that mental health impacts athletes the same way it impacts non-athletes.“Perhaps it is hidden because athletes are often seen as strong and ‘larger than life.’”

By making young athletes more aware of their mental health, Dr. Rosenthal says that their performance in the classroom and on the athletic field would likely improve.

Faculty at Boston University, Dr. Filho and Dr. Zucker stated in “POV: Simone Biles Teaches Us Why We Must Support All Athletes Better” that research suggests that if an athlete doesn’t feel well mentally, it is harder for them to excel. “Athletes perform at their best when they are fully immersed in the present moment and free from internal and external distractions that pull focus away from performance,” continued Dr. Filho and Dr. Zucker.

The COVID-19 Pandemic brought forth more challenges for athletes, with lockdowns shattering the well-planned training schedules athletes have pieced together.

Dr. Rosenthal says that the pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of teenagers and young adults across the board. “Teachers, coaches, parents and friends are aware of these struggles but we are having a hard time meeting all the needs of our students this year. We need more support staff in schools (both high schools and universities).”

The Pandemic has impacted the mental health of athletes competing on all levels, from those participating in high school sports to those performing on the world stage.

Simone Biles says that because of COVID-19 protocols, the time she usually spent hanging out with her teammates instead became an opportunity for her mind to wander. “So things you normally don’t think about because you don’t have time, now you have hours on end to think about—those doubts, those worries and those problems.”

Naomi Osaka is another athlete who has taken large strides to prioritize mental health and value her well-being. She withdrew from the French Open after controversy flared over her decision not to attend mandatory press conferences to protect her mental health.

At the time she wrote, “​​I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” 

Russel Willson, an NFL Player for the Seattle Seahawks, said in the Times 100 for Naomi Osaka that it’s truly meaningful how Osaka was able to honestly share her struggles with mental health. “She’s been able to say to the world: Hey, listen, I’m going through something. Here’s my truth.”

For Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, it is also important to consider their gender and racial identities in this context, says Dr. Rosenthal. “Police brutality and racial injustice has been a constant pressure on everyone over the last few years, especially people of color.”

Dr. Rosenthal added, “Additionally, Simone Biles testified in one of the largest sex abuse scandals as a victim of sexual trauma.” 

She says that athletes are leaders and activists, whether it be for mental health or something else, and should be treated as such.

But she questioned, “Sports Illustrated decided Tom Brady should be athlete of the year? Really? Seriously?”

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