Why mental health is important to athletes – even when they are trying their best to win

“When you’re in a very tense situation, you kind of panic,” she told reporters at the time. “I must focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and safety.”

For old gymnastics fans, Biles’ movement was somewhat unprecedented. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, for example, Keri Strog was famous broke her ankle on the bunker but continued to perform the wounded. The US team won the gold medal that year. Strog retired soon after.

Athletes are often rewarded for giving everything for their sport, regardless of its impact on mental health. Coaches ask for it. Fans are demanding it.

But in recent years, a shift has occurred. In a new episode of “United Shades of America,” Host W. Kamau Bell delves into the intense pressures some of the country’s most beloved athletes face – and the true cost of winning for mental health.

Athletes are seen as artists, not people

Biles’ withdrawal has been one of the most notable instances of an athlete speaking out about his mental health, but she’s not the only one who has.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka has been open about her struggles with depression, and even gone so far Withdrawing from the French Open in 2021. This year, Ben Simmons of the Brooklyn Nets said he “has been going through some dark times” during Outstanding runner With his former team Philadelphia 76ers. At the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, athletes from multiple sports spoke about The pressures that athletes face.
Japan's Naomi Osaka is comforted by coach Wim Fissette after ending her training early at the French Open on May 28, 2021 in Paris.
“I feel like it was a game changer,” snowboarder Anna Jacir He told the New York Times,, from the Bales’ withdrawal in Tokyo the previous year. “Simon Biles’ message was that we are not just athletes – we are human, not robots.”

But this message has not always been there in the past. Especially given the amount of money many athletes earn, there can be a tendency to pressure sports stars to do their jobs no matter the cost.

“[There is]the notion that your health is irrelevant,” Renee Graham, a columnist and editor at the Boston Globe, told Bell. “Your job is to be a show horse and to get out there and entertain people, and you make a lot of money doing that. It’s impossible to separate that ugliness from professional sport.”

Strug, a gymnast who suffered a broken ankle at the 1996 Olympics, told her coach — Bella Karolyi — she wasn’t sure she could do the stunt with her injury. But Karolyi said she could, in a move that at the time was considered good training, Bell said.

Keri Strug is flown from the United States by coach Bella Karolyi during the team competition in the women's gymnastics event at the 1996 Summer Olympics held July 23, 1996 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Since then, there have been many reports and allegations that Karolyi physically and verbally abuses the women he trained. In response, Caroly once He said: “The gymnasts are the best prepared in the world, and they win. That’s it.”

Racism can increase mental health stress

For athletes of color, racism can make mental health problems worse because they also face all of the challenges typical of their profession.

“We often think of things like ‘this is racism’ and ‘this is mental health,’ and they are separate,” said Kristi Oshiro, an associate professor at Belmont University who has studied racism and its impact on athletes. “But actually, it’s really complicated and they tell each other.”

Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, faced racial abuse from tennis fans in 2001, in a final against Kim Clijsters in Indian Wells. Although Williams, aged just 19 at the time, won the match, she refused to play the tournament again until 2015.

“It was hard for me to forget spending hours in tears in the Indian Wells locker room after winning in 2001, going back to L.A. feeling like I lost the biggest game ever – not just tennis but an even bigger battle for me,” said Williams. about her comeback. “Emotionally it seemed easier to walk away.”

Oshiro said the ramifications of the intersections of racism and mental health are present at all levels of play. However, with professional athletes, the stress can be more intense.

“For professional athletes, it’s a little different and special because they expect to constantly compete and perform at this ridiculous elite level, all while being open or exposed to criticism from people all over the world,” she said.

Kim Clijsters, right, and Serena Williams pose with their cups after the game at the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens in Indian Wells, California.

And in the age of the internet, that criticism can come from anywhere – both in person and online.

Grant Williams is an NBA player for the Boston Celtics. He told Bell that he cares about all the comments he gets from fans, especially if it’s racist.

“It’s hard not to notice,” Williams said.

With more athletes talking about the mental health stresses of their sport, the diversity of their stories is astounding. From Biles and Osaka to NBA player Kevin Love and former college volleyball player Victoria Garrick — athletes across a range of ages, races and sports have opened up about their mental health struggles, highlighting the diverse ways these issues can manifest.

Oshiro is herself a former college player, and she played softball at East Carolina University. She said that in just the past 10 years, conversations about mental health have evolved for the better.

“When I played in college, we lacked not only the relevant resources but also the awareness and language to describe the mental health struggles or even the racism we endured at the time,” she said. “It was like you knew you were going through some things, but you didn’t know it might be depression or anxiety.”

Randy Moss, NFL Hall of Fame started Torn on ESPN last year While discussing a racist email sent by former NFL coach John Gruden. At the time, some football fans described Moss as “soft” to show his feelings.

To bring about sustainable change around the mental health of athletes, Oshiro said, everyone involved must reconsider their ways of thinking and talking about athletes — from fans to stakeholders. Even organizations can do a better job of explicitly not tolerating the racism that can often be imposed on athletes of color.

But that is not all that can be done. Oshiro said access to mental health resources is also important.

“When you look at the number of things available for the physical health of athletes — training facilities, weight rooms, etc — there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure it is even for mental health as well,” she said.

And if we don’t care about both their physical fitness and their mental health, as Bell notes on Sunday’s episode, we probably don’t deserve athletes at all.