Why mental health is important for athletes — even if they’re doing everything they can to win

“Anytime you get into a stressful situation, you kind of freak out,” she told reporters at the time. “I need to focus on my mental health and not compromise my health and well-being.”

For longtime gymnastics fans, Biles’ move was unprecedented. For example, at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Kerri Strug was famous broke his ankle at the vault, but continued to perform injured. Team USA won gold that year. Strug retired shortly thereafter.

Athletes are often rewarded for giving everything they have for their sport, regardless of the mental health implications. Coaches demand it; fans demand it.

But in recent years there has been a shift. In a new episode of “United Shades of America,” which airs Sunday on CNN, host W. Kamau Bell delves deep into the tremendous pressures some of the country’s most popular athletes face — and the true cost of the mental health Health that comes with victory.

Athletes are seen as entertainers rather than people

Biles’ withdrawal was one of the most high-profile instances of an athlete speaking out about her mental health, but she’s not the only one doing so.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka has been open about her struggles with depression, going so far as to pull out of the French Open in 2021. That year, Brooklyn Nets’ Ben Simmons said he’s had “some dark times.” his high-profile feud with his former team the Philadelphia 76ers. And at the Beijing Winter Olympics in February this year, athletes from multiple sports spoke about the pressures Olympians face.
“I feel like it was a game changer,” says snowboarder Anna Gasser said the New York Times, on Biles’ withdrawal in Tokyo the year before. “The message from Simone Biles was that we are not just athletes – that we are also people and not robots.”

But that message hasn’t always been there in the past. Especially considering how much money many athletes make, there can be a tendency to pressure sports stars to perform at any cost.

“[There’s]this idea that your health is irrelevant,” Renée Graham, a columnist and editor at the Boston Globe, told Bell. “That your job is to be a show horse and go out and entertain people and you make a lot of money from it. That ugliness is inseparable from what professional sport is.”

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

Kerri Strug of the United States is carried by coach Bela Karolyi during team competition of the women's gymnastics event of the 1996 Summer Olympics July 23, 1996 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Since then, there have been many reports and allegations that Karolyi physically and verbally abused the women he coached. In response Karolyi once said: “My gymnasts are the most prepared in the world and they win. That’s all that matters.”

Racism can increase mental health pressures

For black athletes, racism can exacerbate mental health issues as they also face all the challenges inherent in their profession.

“Too often we think of things like ‘this is racism’ and ‘this is mental health,’ and they’re separate,” said Kristi Oshiro, an assistant professor at Belmont University who has studied racism and its effects on athletes. “But in reality it’s very complex and they inform each other.”

Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, was racially abused by tennis fans in a 2001 final against Kim Clijsters in Indian Wells. Although Williams, then only 19, won the match, she refused to play the tournament again until 2015.

“It was hard for me to forget how I cried for hours in the Indian Wells locker room after the win in 2001 and drove back to Los Angeles feeling like I’d lost the greatest game of all time — not just one tennis game, but a bigger fight for equality,” Williams said of her return. “Emotionally it seemed easier to stay away.”

The effects of the intersections of racism and mental health are present at all levels of play, Oshiro said. In professional athletes, however, the stress can be more intense.

“It’s a little bit different and different for professional athletes because they’re expected to compete at that ridiculously elite level of the game and perform consistently while at the same time being open to or vulnerable to criticism from people around the world,” she said.

Kim Clijsters, right, and Serena Williams pose with their trophies 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’s careful about any comments he gets from fans, he told Bell, especially if they’re racist.

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

As more and more athletes speak out about the psychological toll of their sport, the diversity of their stories is striking. From Biles and Osaka to the NBA’s Kevin Love and former collegiate volleyball player Victoria Garrick, athletes of different ages, races and sports have all opened up about their mental health issues and highlighted the different ways those issues can manifest themselves.

Oshiro is a former collegiate athlete herself who played softball at East Carolina University. Just in the last 10 years, she said, conversations about mental health have evolved for the better.

“When I was acting in college, not only did we lack the resources, we also lacked the awareness and even the language to describe the mental health issues or even the racism that we were enduring at the time,” she said. “It was like you knew you were going through some things, but you didn’t know that maybe it was depression or anxiety.”

NFL Hall of Famer Randy Moss began ripped up on ESPN last year while discussing a racist email from former NFL coach Jon Gruden. At the time, some football fans called Moss “soft” for showing his feelings.

To transform perceptions of athlete mental health, everyone involved should rethink the way they think and talk about athletes, Oshiro said — from fans to advocacy groups. Organizations, too, explicitly cannot tolerate racism, which is often inflicted on athletes of color.

But that’s not all that can be done. Access to mental health resources is also important, Oshiro said.

“When you look at how many things are available for athletes’ physical health — training facilities, weight rooms, etc. — there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure it’s applicable to mental health as well. ” She said.

And if we can’t take care of their physical fitness or their mental well-being, as Bell points out in Sunday’s episode, then maybe we athletes don’t deserve it at all.

Comments are closed.