Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the 2020 Olympics to prioritize her mental health is a victory for professional sports.
We exist to help people realize a more self-aware, self-actualized life. In light of recent events pertaining to Simone Biles and other athletes at the 2020 Olympic Games, we stand with anyone who puts their mental health and well-being first.
As a former track and field athlete and gymnast, I’m familiar with the pressures associated with competition. I’ve experienced mental blocks brought on by performance anxiety, which at times were debilitating and even humiliating.
I remember pulling out of events and races, embarrassed and ashamed by my inability to toughen up, power through my fear, and win.
This, of course, was a long time ago. As a young person, I didn’t yet have the tools to effectively cope with my anxiety, which ultimately led to my departure from competitive sports.
While I can’t begin to fathom what it’s like to be an Olympian and compete at the highest level, I can identify with the experience of an athlete who’s also a human being.
When American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from nearly every event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health, she was met with both praise and backlash.
Biles’ powerful display of vulnerability and self-awareness challenged what it means to be a mentally tough athlete, and helped reshape some of the expectations we place on our favorite sports idols. Self-actualized athletes show us there can be strength in vulnerability, honor in humility, and even victory when there’s no win at all.
How we define mental strength
We use the term “mental strength” to define a person’s ability to adapt to certain events in their life, regardless of how challenging those events may be. A person who has cultivated mental strength can bounce back more quickly than someone with less developed mental strength.
It’s important to keep in mind that everyone has some degree of mental strength — it’s just a matter of how much and how well you can employ it in your life.
The American gymnast and seven-time Olympic medalist known as the “GOAT” was expected to medal in every event she qualified for at the Tokyo Games. After a shaky start on the vault during the team event, Biles withdrew from both the team and individual all-around competitions, and then all but one individual event.
Uncharacteristic of her perceived mental toughness and greatness in her sport, Biles revealed that she was experiencing what’s known in gymnastics as “the twisties,” a state of dissociation in the air that can have dangerous consequences.
The 24-year-old Texas native wrote in an Instagram story that she “literally cannot tell up from down” and that it was “the craziest feeling ever” to not be in control of your body.
“What’s even scarier is that I have no idea where I am in the air,” she wrote. “I also have NO idea how I’m going to land or what I’m going to land on.”
In addition to the physical safety issue, Biles said she needed to focus on her mental health.
The pressure to perform and be the best had taken a toll on her mental well-being. Prior to the start of the Games, Biles said she intended to advocate for change in gymnastics on behalf of herself and other survivors of sexual abuse from former U.S. gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, according to NBC.
That abuse, she revealed, may have played a role in her performance in Tokyo. She was also grieving a recent death in the family that occurred during the Olympics.
One week after Biles withdrew — and audiences around the world weighed in — she returned to competition for the balance beam final, which required no twists from her routine. She won a bronze medal in a triumphant comeback.
As I watched from the edge of my seat, it was clear that role models aren’t necessarily gold medalists, but those who put their well-being first.
Biles told NBC that the bronze meant more to her than gold because it “represents her focus on mental health and her perseverance.”
As NBC gymnastics analyst, retired gymnast, and five-time Olympic medalist Nastia Luikin said during the beam final, Biles is the “epitome of what the next generation of role models should be.”
Conversations surrounding the mental well-being of elite athletes have come into focus in recent years.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 23 gold medals, has been outspoken about his mental health since his retirement from competitive swimming.
Despite his gold and silver medal wins in multiple events at the 2012 Olympics in London, Phelps experienced depression and said he contemplated suicide following the Games.
Phelps, who’s an analyst for NBC’s Olympic swimming coverage, watched Biles struggle during the initial days of competition in Tokyo. “We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. So yes, it is OK not to be OK,” he said.
Biles — who’s considered the greatest gymnast of all time with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals — was condemned by some critics for “quitting” and “letting down her team,” which won a silver medal instead of the anticipated gold.
Still, at the same time, she was met with an outpouring of support from fans, fellow athletes, and retired gymnasts like two-time Olympian Kerri Strug.
“We’re not just athletes or entertainment — we’re human, too, and we have real emotions,” Biles told NBC after the balance beam final. “Sometimes they don’t realize that we have things going on behind the scenes that affects us whenever we go out and compete.”
Biles’ and Phelps’ stories aren’t isolated incidents, particularly among athletes at the Tokyo Games.
Naomi Osaka, a Japanese tennis player who’s considered one of the best in the world, left the Tokyo Games without medaling.
She was widely criticized for withdrawing from Wimbledon just prior to the Games after declining a mandatory press conference at the French Open to preserve her mental health. She also received support from fans and tennis legend Serena Williams, who empathized with her experience.
Biles’ and Osaka’s decisions to withdraw from competitions and press conferences were a sign of strength, selflessness, and leadership, says Antoinette Wilson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown.
“Actions such as these are what will continue to reshape the narrative that showing vulnerability is actually showing strength,” Wilson says.
Other 2020 Olympians who have spoken publicly about mental health include:
- April Ross (U.S. beach volleyball)
- Cat Osterman (U.S. softball)
- Katie Ledecky (U.S. swimming)
- Kevin Love (U.S. basketball)
- Noah Lyles (U.S. track and field)
- Sakura Kokumai (Japanese karate)
Yet some athletes who’ve shown vulnerability and humanity didn’t have the chance to compete.
Track and field athlete Sha’Carri Richardson, who’s considered one of the fastest women in the world, was suspended from the U.S. Olympic track and field team after testing positive for cannabis.
Her response for her mistake was, “I am human.” Richardson said she used cannabis just after learning of the death of her biological mother and was banned from competing in Tokyo just 1 month prior to the start of the Games.
Why is it difficult for some mainstream audiences to accept that elite athletes, who are capable of superhuman feats, are human beings just like the rest of us?
“When we see athletes perform, we see them at their best and most prepared,” Wilson says. “We see the glitz and glory — rarely do we see the years of practice or sacrifice that precedes the public performances, so the feats they achieve may seem effortless.”
Sport psychologist and former track and field Olympian Lennie Waite, PhD, CMPC agrees.
“It’s easier to think that athletes have superhuman characteristics than it is to think they have worked thousands of hours at mastering a skill,” Waite says.
Waite, who represented Great Britain in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, says she’d once expressed to her coach that she’d never make the Olympic team because she was “too normal.” Her coach reminded her that all Olympians are “normal” in that they work hard, stay committed to their goals, and make progress day after day.
“It took me becoming an Olympian and surrounding myself with other Olympians to believe in the human element of these extreme performances,” she says. “We need to continue to bring out the human element of superstar athletes.”
Waite has advocated for her own mental health in the past as it pertained to her sport and describes how she drew on her mental strength to keep going.
“I’ve shared stories and experiences of the emotional rollercoaster of my experiences in sport, but I have always had the ability to bounce back from negative events,” she says. “My biggest struggles were always related to the political aspects of the sport that I couldn’t control.”
When it comes to superstar athletes like Michael Phelps, Waite points out that he had reached a moment in his career just prior to his retirement where he had a tremendous platform to advocate for change.
“I think [Phelps] had the opportunity to reflect on the mental health issues in professional sports and realized that he was in a prime position to speak up about the issues,” she says.
In addition, Waite says she’s recently conducted research that supports the idea that athletes are inspired and motivated by other athletes coming forward to advocate for mental health support.
Yet access to mental healthcare for athletes is still lacking.
Research in 2018 suggests that college athletes were willing to utilize mental health services, but factors like gender, stigma, and availability of resources prevented athletes from seeking treatment.
The authors concluded that administrators, public health officials, and stakeholders should remove these barriers to empower college athletes to prioritize their mental health.
“If you see an Olympian speak about their struggles, how they reached out for help, and the positive impact it had on their performance, it helps normalize this behavior for all athletes,” Waite says. “Overall, stigma reduction and normalization is helpful in making mental health support mainstream in elite sport.”
Part of that stigma reduction involves speaking out about mental health and modeling what it means to self-advocate to inspire both athletes and non-athletes alike.
“Although we might not all be elite athletes, the vulnerabilities expressed by Biles, Osaka, and others are certainly relatable,” Wilson says. “Biles has already shown that her legacy will extend much further than the mark she’s already made as a decorated gymnast.”
“She has shown that there’s strength in protecting your mental health, asking for help, and advocating for yourself, which are invaluable lessons to us all,” Wilson adds.
Just because an athlete has developed mental toughness doesn’t mean they’re exempt from mental health issues.
- 16% of former elite athletes reported distress
- 19% of athletes reported alcohol misuse
- 26% of former athletes reported anxiety or depression
- 34% of current athletes reported anxiety or depression
The sample included 2,895–5,555 current and 1,579–1,689 former elite athletes.
When the whole world is watching, there’s no denying the overwhelming pressure that professional athletes face during competition — particularly in sports where you’re judged based on your performance versus your finish time.
For Biles, a phenomenon like “the twisties” may have resulted from some of this pressure, according to Waite.
“Pressure and stress cause physiological changes and cognitive changes,” she says. “As soon as your mind gets overstressed from pressure, thoughts start to race, and very simple, automatic skills elude the athlete.”
Waite says that an amygdala hijack brought on by stress can cause increased tension in the body, making normally smooth physical movements jerky and forced.
“Breathing starts to restrict and tighten, which makes athletes feel dizzy and faint,” she says. “All of this comes together and makes it impossible to perform the automatic skills that athletes have done thousands of times before.”
The key to performing on an Olympic stage, according to Waite, is for an athlete to draw on their mental toughness and remove emotion from the moment when they must execute a physical skill.
“When emotion hits, it feels like it drains all the energy and focus from your body. I remember running the final 100 meters at the Olympic Trials in 2016, and I knew I just had to make it over the last barrier to make the Olympic Team. As soon as that emotion of making a team entered my brain, it sucked all of the power from my legs and I started panicking that I might not make it to the finish line. I felt like someone strapped sandbags to my body. It is so important to stay present when competing in these big moments.”
— Lennie Waite, PhD, CMPC, OLY
Stress and pressure aside, many elite athletes commit to media appearances and sponsorships and are expected to maintain a strong social media presence.
The commitments, on top of maintaining their training and performance, can affect mental well-being over time.
“I think the increase in social media and the closeness that spectators, fans, supporters, and media have to athletes makes them more vulnerable to mental health issues,” says Waite. “Everyone feels like they have insight into the careers of these athletes, and there is no privacy or downtime for the athlete.”
Waite says that some expectations behind an athlete’s social media presence are unsustainable. Athletes must also deal with unfavorable commentary and criticism from fans.
“The job of a professional athlete has evolved to include a social media presence, which is challenging to manage alongside endless hours of physical training,” she says.
“I think it is becoming too much, and we are seeing athletes request support to manage the mental side of the increased pressures and expectations that have become embedded in their athletic career,” she adds.
Athletes — regardless of their mental toughness — aren’t immune to the emotional and financial stressors of the ongoing pandemic, particularly during an unprecedented Olympic Games where spectators weren’t permitted to watch and cheer them on.
Waite explains how the pandemic increased uncertainty for many athletes leading up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Lockdowns and physical distancing measures created barriers that affected athletic training, such as:
- closed training facilities
- restricted access to physical therapy and massage
- reduced contracts due to the postponement of the Games
Waite says that reduced contracts rendered some athletes unable to travel, compete, and earn an income. She says that while some athletes benefitted from the extra time to train, others may have experienced stress and anxiety from these disruptions.
In her 1998 memoir, “Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression,” the Ghanian American writer Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
Wilson, whose research focuses on how racial stereotypes affect racial identity, says that one possible historical basis for the “intolerability” of weakness toward Black women stems from racial and gender stereotypes that depicted Black women in the “mammy” role, which views Black women as strong caretakers in “happy service” to others.
“For Black women, this trope can manifest in the idea that as long as she’s perfect, she’s OK,” Wilson explains. “But she’s allowed no room for error, no missteps, no day to say ‘I need to take a step back and take care of myself.’”
Wilson says that while embracing the role of caregiver can be a source of pride for some Black women, continuing to put others before yourself can eventually take a toll on your mental well-being.
“When Black women are given the respect and space needed to express their vulnerabilities, it shows that strength can be enacted in multiple ways,” says Wilson. “Part of being strong is not only caring for others, but also caring for yourself and feeling comfortable expressing when you need help.”
Wilson says that when Black women stand up for themselves or go against expectations, it can be seen as a disruption of the systems that view the role of Black women as being in service to others.
“When we think of the criticisms that athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka received when they went against expectations, we see that it is rooted in an idea of ownership,” she says.
“Critics may believe that these athletes owe us a performance, even if it comes at the expense of their own bodies,” she adds. “And not only is this idea rooted in misogyny and racism, it’s physically dangerous.”
Wilson explains that Black athletes, particularly those who perform in white-dominated fields, are acutely aware of the double standards that are more forgiving when their white peers make similar mistakes or express similar emotions.
For instance, the way some media outlets have portrayed Serena Williams compared to her white counterparts.
Wilson points out that Williams has shown a range of emotions during tennis matches, and often receives harsher criticism than other white, male athletes in the sport, such as Novak Djokovic or John McEnroe, despite that they’ve displayed similar or more extreme emotional outbursts.
“The pressure to be perfect and not do anything that could be viewed as aggressive, difficult, or a stereotypical ‘angry Black woman’ adds another layer of stress for Black women that could potentially affect performance,” Wilson says.
The importance of mental strength in sports is synonymous with an athlete’s success — regardless of race or gender.
If your body and mind are pushed past their limits, however, it can lead to burnout, injury, or overtraining syndrome.
In her practice as a sport psychologist in Houston, Waite helps athletes reach their full potential by helping them maximize the mental side of their performance.
Here are a few tips for how to be a better athlete mentally to optimize your physical performance and prioritize your well-being:
Waite defines self-awareness as understanding your values, purpose, and what you stand for.
“Self-awareness is central in balancing the toughness needed to push through and make it to a global stage in sport and the control needed to know when to rest the mind and/or body,” she says. “Athletes who know who they are and make decisions that are authentic to themselves and their journey are more likely to have long-term success.”
Consider what might be best for you in the moment. Pushing through mental or physical injury could cut your career short or lead to burnout.
Practice deep breathing
Deep breathing exercises or “box breathing” helps you check in with your body and mind to reduce tension before training or competition.
Waite recommends a quick centering exercise to release self-doubt and anxious thoughts by focusing on a positive statement or affirmation about your performance.
Try visualization exercises
Imagery helps an athlete experience the environment they’ll be competing in and walk through their performance plan prior to competition.
“I encourage athletes to look at pictures of the Olympic village, competition venue, and any other relevant areas they may be able to get a glimpse of before they travel to an Olympic Games,” Waite says. “It’s important to make these guided imagery experiences as rich as possible. Also, it’s important to visualize yourself having success!”
Simone Biles and other athletes have set a new precedent for mental health in professional sports, leaving an inspiring legacy for younger and up-and-coming athletes.
We’ve learned there’s a difference between the physical strength, power, and endurance needed for physical fitness versus the self-awareness, mental strength, and calm presence needed for mental fitness.
In addition, we’ll probably never know the full spectrum of what an athlete might be dealing with.
“We cannot judge someone’s mental fitness or performance capabilities according to how a person outwardly appears or our expectations of what anxiety, depression, or trauma should look like,” Wilson says.
That’s why it’s up to us, as fans, to do our part to support the mental well-being of our favorite athletes.
“Fans should respect and support the decisions that athletes make to protect themselves, not only physically, but mentally,” Wilson adds. “We should normalize treating mental injuries as we would any physical injury.”
That means supporting athletes through their highs and lows; their wins and losses.
“Fans tend to swarm athletes after they win and forget about them or even disown their love for them when they lose, [which] impacts all athletes to some extent,” says Waite. “Continual messages of support and helping them through the journey, not just at the peak moments, is key to helping the athlete you enjoy watching compete sustain a long-term love for their sport.”
Andrea Rice (she/her) is an award-winning journalist based in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a staff writer for PsychCentral, she covers mental health news and trending topics. Her work has appeared in news outlets such as The New York Times and INDY Week, and wellness publications such as Yoga Journal, Verywell, and mindbodygreen. As a yoga and meditation teacher since 2010, Andrea’s book, The Yoga Almanac, offers seasonal practices to nourish the body and mind. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter, and read more of her work on her website.