For decades, athletes were told to eat healthy, exercise, focus on winning, dominate, and, well, get it done! It was always about fitness. Their diets have been super healthy, and their physical training equally intense — and they have been role models for many across the world. And from the outside, all of those on the global stage did appear physically fit, ready to take on any challenges. And anyone physically fit is considered mentally strong, especially if one is a sportsperson.
So, when American gymnast Simone Biles decided to withdraw from the Olympics, she created quite a stir. Even as she was applauded for her courage to take that stance, many US Republicans called her a sociopath because she was not ‘tough enough’. Even the British broadcaster Piers Morgan mocked her calling hers an excuse for not performing well.
But as she withdrew from the final round of her event in the Olympics, Simone had said, “We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do. Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
Simone had hinted at her struggle on Instagram, some days before she announced her decision to step down. In a post that showed her in the gymnastic gear in one of the pictures, a part of her caption reads, “prelims now to prepare for finals. it wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it. I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke [sic]!”
Beating away the stigma
Psychiatrist and psychologist Dr Anjali Chabbaria is relieved that people finally understand the importance of mental health. “When computer software gets corrupted, it affects the entire hardware of the computer,” she explains. “Similarly, when your brain gets corrupted, when your circuits get affected, you cannot think or decide properly. Your attention and intelligence, everything gets affected. And just like our bodies fall sick, our minds too can fall sick.”
Then adding that because the mind can’t be ‘seen’, people have been ignoring the importance of mental health, the doctor points at the stigma attached to admitting one has mental issues. “So, many celebrities and successful and intelligent people coming out and talking about it now is helping beat away the stigma attached to mental health. I think the world is moving in the right direction and mental health is something we have begun to prioritise,” adds the doctor hopefully.
Coach and leading mental and emotional fitness expert Anand Chulani believes that being mentally tough is important. “But we’ve lost our sense of what mentally though means,” he explains. “Previously, it was about ‘toughen up and suppress self-doubt’. We were in a world of achievers — it was all about pretending to be okay and pushing self-doubt down. But what actually makes you tough is accepting the self-doubt and find a way to empower your mind to convert that self-doubt into self-believe. That’s the foundation of being a champion.”
More athletes open up
Despite the shock and then the acceptance and support that surrounded it, Simone’s Olympic story is not unique. According to Dr Naresh Rao, D.O., the head physician for the USA Water Polo and member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) medical team at the Tokyo Olympics, more athletes have been reporting mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, psychiatric conditions and eating disorders.
He’s been reported as saying that given the incidence in the general population, coupled with the added pressures of the pandemic and the Olympic competition, “the majority of athletes should be using mental health support.”
In fact, besides Simone Biles prominent athletes such as tennis player Naomi Osaka, American swimmer Michael Phelps and American Olympic gymnast Sam Mikulak have shared their own struggles with mental health issues. No wonder the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and national Olympic bodies including the USOPC are addressing mental health as they do when they advise athletes on nutrition and recovery from physical injury. For the first time, the IOC has even issued guidelines for athletes and their coaches to educate and screen for and manage mental health issues.
The extremes of elite sports
The athletic culture in general is one in which you are driven to continuously push your body and in some cases your mind to the maximum potential. In fact, until recently, mental health among elite athletes was not a very often-discussed topic.
Gayatri Vartak Madkekar, former international badminton player, who’s presently a sport psychologist and the founder of Samiksha Sports and Performance Psychology, admits that elite sport is tough. “And most times, performance becomes more important than the athlete. Performance is important, but we must create a system where performance becomes an outcome of our training and process,” she says. “Added to that pressure, celebrity athletes have immense burdens to live up to a social image, with the paparazzi eating into their privacy.”
Elite sport in essence is a very lonely space. “As players invest more time in sports, they sacrifice their social lives even as they balance their education. As they grow in stature, all the endorsements, media engagements, rehab, recovery, training, etc. leave the athlete tired,” points out Gayatri, who adds that because the athletes interact with limited people, they must have a very strong support team. “With a good team of coaches, family, sports science experts, psychologists and physio therapists, an athlete’s mind can be managed effectively.”
Gayatri is, however, convinced that athletes speaking about mental wellbeing can be a catalyst in bringing mental wellbeing and sport psychology to the forefront.
All the work that still needs to be done
According to Dr Anjali, we must work on awareness and assessing. “Just like physical tests, there should be tests to determine the mental health, which includes a person’s level of motivation, level of interest, level of burnout, among other issues,” explains the doctor. “Questionnaire, interviews, a combination of different techniques, etc. should be used to assess a person's mental health. Everyone should be assessed and periodically too so people can find help.”
Anand Chulani, the mental and emotional fitness expert and coach, regards Simone Biles an outstanding athlete and a champion of mental health who is an inspiration to anyone on what it means to be a champion.
“Mentally, we must understand the importance of mental health and build resilience in our players. We must help them become healthier and fitter and test all of it before sending them off into tournaments. I believe our first service is to our own self. If we take care of our own self, we can take care of our team and even inspire our country,” he adds.
Biles’ past tense
Here’s a map of gymnast’s life and her mental health struggles:
· Was in foster care as a child as her biological mother Shannon Biles was unable to care for her and her three siblings
· Was adopted by her maternal grandparent in 2003
· Bullied in school for her appearance
· Suffered from ADHD, a condition for which she was prescribed medication
· Was molested by team doctor Larry Nassar
“Mental health over the last 18 months is something people are talking about. We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. So yes, it is OK not to be OK.”
— Michael Phelps, winner of a record 28 Olympic medals including 23 Olympic gold medals
Now retired, Phelps has long been open about his own mental health struggles. He also opened up about contemplating suicide after the 2012 Olympics while wrecked with depression.
“Everyone wants athletes to be indestructible and perfect all the time. Sometimes it’s too much. And when that is the case, you have to do what is best for you.”
— U.S. Olympic gymnast Sam Mikulak, who’s publicly acknowledged his own mental health struggles
Simone Biles is not the only one to speak up. Several high-profile athletes have been talking openly on mental health.
· Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, and, after her exit in Olympics, stated that the Olympic cauldron was a bit too much to handle.
· Cricketer Virat Kohli recently, while speaking to former England cricketer Mark Nicholas on his podcast revealed his battle with depression back in 2014. “It’s not a great feeling when you wake up knowing that you won’t be able to score any runs, where you’re not in control of anything at all. I just couldn’t understand at all how to get over it. Lot of people suffer from that feeling for longer periods of time. I strongly feel the need for professional help there to be honest.”
· American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, was disqualified from the Olympic contingent for marijuana use, admitted she used it to help mask the pain of her birth mother’s death, to say nothing of the pressure of the 100 meters.
Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin left training camp in January to clear his head, saying he was finding it “very difficult … to know how to find my way as Tom Dumoulin the cyclist.”
· Liz Cambage, a WNBA player who competes for Australia, pulled out of the Olympics a week before they opened because of anxiety over entering a controlled COVID bubble in Tokyo.