According to Tiffany M. Stewart, PhD, a scientist and clinical psychologist at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, and a former athlete herself, “Female athletes, in particular, are under pressure from many sources.”
It can be especially challenging for women, especially women of color. “It’s hard, but it’s harder being a female athlete because everybody prays for your downfall and wants you to mess up,” Biles said in interview earlier this month. There’s a slew of harmful stereotypes that exist that are often used against them. Like, for example, the “strong Black woman” trope.
“These expectations and stereotypes are even more intense for women of color,” Stewart says. “They’re more intense for female athletes than they are for male athletes, and then you amplify that even 10 times more.”
And consider uniforms. Women have been fighting against them for decades, from mandatory full-length dresses in the early 1900s to skimpy beach volleyball bikinis in the present day. “Why do female athletes have to be naked to compete in the same sports as men, who are wearing clothes?” Stewart asks.
Biles has competed through broken toes and kidney stones. She also continued to compete as she coped with the mental trauma of being molested by trusted team doctor Larry Nassar. “And we’re standing here questioning her toughness,” Stewart says. “It’s ridiculous.”
This all could have implications for mental health for athletes everywhere too. In her work, Stewart develops and tests e-health technologies and community-based programs in order to disseminate mental health-related prevention and treatment efforts.
One program Stewart and colleagues developed is called S.C.O.R.E. (Sport Carried Onward for Resilience and Enrichment), which uses evidence-based methods to inform and train athletes on how to put mental health and resilience skills into action—both while in sport and when transitioning out.
“The idea would be that we would have this telehealth app,” Stewart says. “We’ve deployed a similar tool in the army for nutrition, fitness, sleep, and mental resilience skills training, and we wanted to do that for athletes.”
Stewart’s is one program of many that could be implemented for athletes in schools, with the potential to hop onto the momentum of Biles and Osaka’s public decisions.
Logistically, that might look like athletes having some sort of mental health activity per week, more time off, and again—media training, or at least the option to opt out of a press conference every once in a while. Osaka even proposed changing the traditional conference format.
And now, after the initial shock, Biles is being applauded for prioritizing her health. When asked what she’s taken away from this entire experience, she said: “Put your mental health first. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the biggest stage. That’s more important than any other medal you could win.”
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255); the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or the SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 if you find yourself in mental health crisis.