Following the withdrawal of Simone Biles from both the team and all individual finals but the beam, I felt compelled to share some of my thoughts regarding her withdrawal and the potential impact these events could have on athletes all around the world.
Simone Biles is Team USA’s standout gymnast and has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, with many seeing her as the ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time) when it comes to gymnastics. With this huge success also comes huge expectation and, in the lead up to Tokyo 2020, the media was awash with hype around Biles, Team USA gymnastics and whether they would continue to assert their dominance of the team event. However, Biles withdrew after just one vault attempt during the team final, leaving the podium stating, ‘I have to focus on my mental health’. Despite returning to support her teammates, it was decided that Biles would not be competing in the remainder of the team competition. She also withdrew from all individual finals except the beam, in which she did compete and earned a bronze medal. Speaking in the aftermath of her withdrawal, Biles explained that she did not feel that her mental health was in a good enough position to compete and that she also did not want to risk an injury because of this lack of confidence. This lack of confidence comes from a mental block, referred to as ‘the twisties’ in gymnastics, where the athlete has no sense of their position in the air and carries a very high risk of injury.
By taking such a strong and brave stance on the biggest stage of all, Biles has not only protected her own physical and mental well-being, but also provided a basis from which many future athletes will benefit in the years to come. Michael Phelps summed this up perfectly when speaking to NBC News, saying that he hopes this will be an “eye-opening experience” and help to “blow this mental health thing wide open”. Mental health support and awareness in sport are no doubt growing but this serves as a reminder that there is still so much more to be done to properly support athletes and raise awareness of the difficulties they face.
The pressures placed upon athletes such as Biles are unimaginable to the rest of us. They are constantly in the spotlight, with millions of fans scrutinising every aspect of their performance from the comfort of sofas, pubs, and desks (sorry Cal) around the world. While this spotlight no doubt brings in investment to sport, which is essential for athletes to reach their full potential, there are clearly implications, which must be addressed. What athletes like Biles are doing by speaking out is bringing these realities, and sometimes deeper issues, of elite sports environments out of the shadows and into the mainstream media, not allowing it to be quietly ignored any longer. As Michael Phelps has since said, “We can’t brush it under the rug anymore…” and Biles has shown that she will not allow this to happen.
Biles, and other athletes like her, speaking so openly and candidly is helping to reduce the stigma around mental health in sport and will show others that it is ‘ok not to be ok’. This week has shown the world that nobody, not even the very best, is insusceptible to mental health challenges and that all athletes, from the bottom right up to the top, must be supported. Whilst most of us will never know what it is like to be an athlete at that level, Biles has spoken honestly and relatably. I hope that this will serve as a poignant reminder to many that, despite her incredible sporting talent and achievements, she is still a person with the same feelings, concerns, and vulnerabilities as anyone else, as are her fellow athletes. Her comments regarding how her mental health issues have directly affected her performance were particularly striking, further emphasising the importance of positive mental health for athletes.
It Is clear from the outpouring of support from fellow Olympians and athletes that Biles is not alone in what she is going through and, while upsetting, I hope that this will show young athletes of all levels that whatever they are feeling is nothing to be ashamed of and will encourage them to seek support. Additionally, I hope that Biles returning later in the games as she did and earning another Olympic Medal will encourage others who may be struggling, by showing them that helping your mental health does not and will not hinder their performance.
Biles has shown that she is willing to put her mental well-being above all else, setting a precedent for athletes everywhere that nothing must come before mental health, not even an Olympic medal. By showing vulnerability in a sport centred traditionally around toughness and hard work, she has demonstrated a willingness to not only look after her own well-being, but also the well being of athletes around the world who have not felt able to speak up before.
Myself and everyone else at Sporting Minds UK hope to see Simone back in action soon and would encourage any athletes who are struggling with their own mental well-being to get in contact and seek support. You can get in contact with us and view the other support available through the ‘Get Support’ section of our website.
Ben Fisher (Associate- Sporting Minds UK)