Athletes are human too, why mental health matters in sports

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Simone Biles, the most decorated Olympic gymnast of all-time, shocked the country when she said enough is enough. The 24-year-old gymnast announced in July she was stepping out of the Olympic team gymnastic finals to focus on her mental health. In a July press conference, Biles said athletes “have to protect our minds and our bodies, and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.”

Her decision comes almost two months after four-time Grand Slam champion tennis superstar Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open to prioritize her mental health and take some time off the court. Osaka said in a June Instagram post that she had been suffering from depression since winning the U.S. Open in 2018.

As a former athlete myself, I understand Biles’ and Osaka’s decisions. Since I was in eighth grade, my goal was to play four years of basketball. When freshman year of high school came around, I was excited. But after the first few practices, I realized my heart was not in it anymore.

I would have a great day at school. Then practice would roll around and I dreaded going. I was not performing my best. That’s when I saw the shift in my mental health. My energetic, bubbly personality had completely vanished. I realized I needed to prioritize my health, and the best way to do it was to step away. My classmates and teammates were taken aback by my decision because they knew how much I loved basketball. Some of my teammates were disappointed because they believed I had so much potential to be a successful basketball player. I received tremendous support from my friends and family, for which I am grateful.

What baffles me about Biles’ and Osaka’s decision is the criticism of people referring to them as “quitters” or “selfish.” As prominent athletes, Biles and Osaka are helping to bring mental health to the fore and setting an example for others to prioritize their well-being, which is not selfish. Athletes for Hope, an organization committed to assisting and educating athletes, claims 35 percent of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis. Being on such a high pedestal may cause athletes to believe they will be forever scrutinized for anything they do, which can result in anxiety and depression.

For the first time, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee brought a group of mental health specialists to Tokyo to accompany the gymnastics team, according to Team USA. I believe this is a step in the right direction and should be a requirement for all sports leagues so athletes can have daily
evaluations. There should be a mental health break for three days every month between the long seasons dedicated to taking a mental break, at least once every month for two or three days.

Biles may have won 36 medals, and Osaka may have won seven titles, but these women are showing they are more than their athletic achievements. They are setting an example and raising awareness about mental health.

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