On Tuesday night one of the greatest gymnasts Simone Biles pulled out of the team finals at the Olympics, it (unsurprisingly) made headlines around the world. Simone Biles has taken the sport to new levels (literally) but has also struggled mentally. She has been open about her mental health and how she struggled when the Olympics were postponed to this year and the toll that took. So, while it was still a shock it didn’t come as a complete surprise when it was revealed she withdrew from the competition due to mental health reasons.
Just getting to the Olympics is an achievement and it takes not only physical discipline but also mental discipline. We always talk about physical health in sports but rarely mental health, you could be at the top of your game like Simone Biles is but if your mental health isn’t there then you are going to struggle.
The Tokyo Olympics also has the added challenges that previous Olympics haven’t had due to Covid. Athletes don’t have their support systems with them, they don’t have their families and friends cheering them on, they don’t have crowds and they are stuck in their team bubbles, not being able to chat with other athletes from different countries. It’s understandable that most athletes would be struggling mentally, and it’s bound to impact their competition.
While Simone is the first high profile athlete to withdraw from a competition due to her mental health, she’s not the first athlete to and there will many more after. Many athletes struggle with their mental health, Ian Thorpe has been open about his mental health struggles especially when he chose to retire from swimming and then failed to make a comeback and the team for the London Olympics. You could have all the best physios, coaches and doctors helping you maintain your best physical levels but if mentally you are not there then you will struggle and fail.
Many athletes have commended Simone for being so open about her struggles and knowing when to step back and it’s been great to see so many rally around her (even more so when on Wednesday she made the decision to withdraw from Thursday’s individual competition as well). That’s not to say there hasn’t been negative criticism there has, and many of those comments are calling her soft or saying she doesn’t have discipline which couldn’t be further from the truth. If Simone was dealing with a physical injury, we wouldn’t expect her to compete so why should a mental health injury be any different? It takes strength to say I need to take a step back and put my mental health first and a lesson we could all learn.
It’s been great to see the conversation getting started surrounding mental health because if a high-profile Olympic athlete can admit to struggling with their mental health, then surely we can as well. It's just another step towards reducing the stigma surrounding mental health.
No doubt Simone will return to competition better than ever when she is ready but if not that’s ok. Sometimes doing the right thing for you means making hard decisions and being prepared to walk away even if that means walking away from the Olympic stage.
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