As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics come to a close, conversations about athletes and mental health that emerged from the games are expected to linger. Athletes lauded by many as the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) are expected to go for nothing other than gold. Now they’re leading the way in publicly acknowledging their mental health struggles.
Gymnast Simone Biles stepped down at the Tokyo Olympics due to mental and physical health concerns. And just just a few months ago, Olympic tennis player Naomi Osaka also made headlines when she stepped away from a press conference, and then the French Open tournaments, to care for her mental health.
Typically, athletes are expected to “persevere” and push through any ailments, physical or mental. But Tiffany M. Stewart, PhD, a scientist and clinical psychologist at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana, and former athlete herself, says that we need to pay attention to this moment.
Gymnasts that go on to the Olympics typically start training as young as 4 and spend most of their time outside of school practicing. This often results in sacrifices and opens the door for severe injuries. Many athletes struggle with mental health following injury. There’s also the looming threat of failure.
When Osaka backed out of press conferences at the French Open, citing “disregard for athletes’ mental health,” she received backlash on many fronts. “She’s basically saying, ‘Look, can I back away from the media when I’m not doing well?'” Stewart says. “And she gets so punished for that that she bails out of the competition. Why not say, ‘You know what? It’s okay. Back off for today.'”
In an article for Time about her initial decision to pull out from press conferences, Osaka wrote that she’s never been “media-trained.” Her decision to skip a few, she wrote, in order to “exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health,” didn’t need to be reacted to in the way that it was. “The intention was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better,” she wrote.
“I think we do need to work with the athletes for mental health robustness and resilience skills training,” Stewart says. “But we also need to look at our culture and environment about our expectations, and about all this pressure and all the media interviews, what’s really required, and how can we make this culture a little less punishing.”
Still, to offer the support that may be needed now and in the future, Stewart says, we’ll need to see a paradigm shift.
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.