A few days after the commencement of the Tokyo Olympics, gymnastics champion Simone Biles shocked the world when she decided to withdraw from the gymnastics team finals. Although USA Gymnastics initially stated that it was due to a medical issue, Biles later clarified her reasons for withdrawing by citing her mental health as the primary factor in her decision to pull out.
The young superstar athlete’s decision to prioritize her mental health has been met with immense support from numerous fans and fellow gymnasts. However, Biles’ decision to pull out of multiple Olympic events ultimately underlines the need for mental health awareness among athletes.
Despite their bodies constantly releasing endorphins and enkephalins through exercise, athletes are not immune to mental health challenges. With the constant expectation to perform well in both tournaments and in public, many athletes lack the opportunity to set aside time for themselves. Over time, the athletes become defined by their sport, rather than their own ambitions and personalities — with the athletes oftentimes gradually losing their identities after a certain point.
They allow their records and number of medals, or lack of thereof, to determine their worth. Therefore, it’s no wonder that, according to Athletes for Hope, up to 35% of professional athletes suffer from a mental health crisis that may manifest as stress, burnout, depression and/or anxiety.
Although this issue is not widely discussed in the world of sports, several pro athletes have fortunately found the courage to disclose their experience with mental illness and mood disorders throughout the past few years.
Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, who recently expressed sympathy for Biles, is an athlete who has candidly expressed his struggles with depression and suicide in the past, especially in his documentary “The Weight of Gold.”
Becoming a 23-time gold medalist required many years of nonstop training and constantly prioritizing becoming the best. Unfortunately, Phelps gradually became part of a single-minded system. Within this system, most coaches view athletes as invaluable assets and bright trophies during these athletes’ short-lived moments of Olympic glory but proceed to cast them aside soon after to make room for the next up-and-coming star.
Phelps’ mental rigor serves as a personal testament to the existence of this inimical system. Phelps stated that he frequently had suicidal thoughts even at the peak of his athletic career and labels depression and suicide as an “epidemic” among professional athletes.
“We’re just products,” Phelps said in a past interview. “It’s frightening. It’s scary. And it breaks my heart. Because there are so many people who care so much about our physical well-being, but I never saw caring about our mental well-being.”
Phelps is not the only athlete to feel this way. Professional tennis player Naomi Osaka, who recently made headlines for backing out of Wimbledon, also came forward to disclose her feelings toward the nature of the sports industry.
“In any other line of the work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual,” Osaka wrote for Time. “You wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy.”
The significance of having prominent athletes speak candidly about mental health issues cannot be overstated. Confessions like these ultimately encouraged some parts of the sports industry to implement small changes to address mental health.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national Olympic bodies have implemented a set of guidelines at the Tokyo Olympics for athletes and their coaches to discuss, examine and manage mental health issues. The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) also issued more reliable mental health resources for Team USA athletes. Additionally, the team will also be accompanied by four mental health professionals: a psychologist, a social worker and two psychiatrists.
Outside of the Olympics, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has also taken a similar stance for mental wellness by requiring mandatory health and wellness meetings for team executives. Additionally, the league adopted rules that require teams to hire one full-time mental health professional to their full-time staff.
Overall, these attempts to improve mental health resources for athletes are still a work in progress. Unfortunately, most conversations regarding mental health are still associated with humiliation, self-condemnation and weakness. Normalization of mental wellness still needs to be prioritized and treated with the same care as physical wellness.
Although some athletes like Biles and Phelps have been brave enough to vocalize their experience with mental health issues, the topic is still widely deemed controversial or even taboo — especially considering the perfectionist nature of the sports industry, which demands its participants endure and push through any hardships.
It doesn’t help that the public often places athletes on a pedestal — labeling them as invincible, awe-inspiring gods. The attention that athletes tend to gather pressures them to stay silent about their hardships, making it difficult for them to seek proper assistance.
Not only does this call for a need for the public to recognize the imperfect nature of professional athletes, but both the sports industry and society overall need to significantly modify the definition of athletic success.
In the meantime, fans must realize that their favorite athletes are only human so they can start openly sharing their own mental health struggles. Doing so will remind countless spectators and athletes alike of the existing vulnerability and pain that lies behind the glamour of the sports industry.