A 2021 study by Lindberg found that, it’s common for student-athletes to feel extremely stressed, and this can lead to burnout and overtraining.
Athletes feel an immense amount of pressure to perform to their highest abilities every game or meet. However, this can mean their mental health gets overlooked. If athletes are conditioned to believe their mental health comes second, then it can be harmful for their overall health.
Back in 2020, Simon Biles dropped out of the Tokyo Olympics due to concerns about her mental health. Even though some praised her for taking a step back, others were very quick to condemn her decision. Some critics labeled her as a “national embarrassment,” and believed she shouldn’t be able to compete in the Olympics anymore.
Those who harshly judged her choice have never been in her shoes. This stigma surrounding athlete’s mental health has caused athletes to push themselves to their breaking point. Even though I believe it’s important to give it your all in every game, athletes are not invincible.
Regardless of some critics chastising Biles for leaving the Olympics, I applaud her for putting her mental health first. I believe it takes more courage to walk away than to stay. Biles knew that she would be ridiculed and attacked by people that disagreed, but she still chose to stay loyal to herself and step down.
In an article from 2021, Biles told NBC News that she felt the enormous weight and pressure of being named the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). Biles felt “she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.” No one could see this, until it all became too much. It took great humility and strength for the Olympic gymnast to step down and pass the baton to another teammate.
Although mental health in sports is still taboo for some, Biles knew it was necessary to take a break. The star athlete emphasized how she is only human, and has limitations like everyone else.
In addition, Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist that has worked with professional and student-athletes, commented on how social media, fans and other people’s expectations can feel crippling at times.
Magavi said to NBC, “ … athletes like Biles, ‘who have such stature’ and are ‘essentially symbolizing and representing a country,’ can have so much anticipatory anxiety and face such enormous pressure to be perfect and never falter that ‘in this way they lose that passion for the game that was the first reason they joined the game in the first place.’”
Furthermore, famous tennis athlete Naomi Osaka announced back in 2021 that she needed to take a break from her sport, withdrawing even from the French Open. Many of her fellow athletes, like Martina Navratilova, Steph Curry and Serena Williams supported her decision. Tennis player Navratilova said, “perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift.”
The question that arises is how can athletes’ mental health be better supported? There are a few ways to look at this. First, I believe coaches should do mental health checks with their athletes twice a month. This can help ensure players feel taken care of. Coaches should have resources on hand to help their athletes if they are struggling with mental health.
If coaches are better equipped and informed to deal with their players’ anxiety or depression, I believe their athletes will perform at a higher level. At bare minimum, individual teams should have an open dialogue about mental health.
Next, more athletes need to be advocates for mental health awareness. There has been improvement with Simon Biles and Naomi Osaka speaking up about their experiences, but there is still work to do. If more athletes advocate for prioritizing mental health, then a conversation can arise from that.
Debunking the mental health stigma around sports won’t happen all at once, but if individual players make the choice to put their well-being first, they can inspire other athletes to do the same.