Athletes for the Mental Wellness WIN!

In 2021, it was (once again) athletes who changed the way we think about mental health.

BRAVO – Athletes for the WIN!

Icons and heros to many, professional and elite-level athletes train their bodies and minds to exceed expectations – often at physical and mental costs that are impossible to sustain.

Some might say that this is their “job” – this is why they get paid the big bucks – and that is at least partly true. “No Wimps!” “No Quitters!”

But as a growing number of top-tier athletes speak out about their personal challenges with mental health, there is a growing understanding of the critical importance (for all of us) of what I refer to as Mental Wellness – and the high end of that – Mental Fitness.

Some of the notable and most vocal athletes include Kevin Love (5-time NBA All-Star); Michael Phelps (most decorated Olympian swimmer of all-time); Naomi Osaka (Grand Slam winning tennis star); and Simone Biles (greatest gymnast of all-time and TIME magazine’s ATHLETE OF THE YEAR).

I want to share two excellent articles on these topics. Both were published just a few weeks ago (in December 2021) – one by Alice Park and Sean Gregory in TIME magazine (naming Simone Biles its Athlete of the Year) – and the other by Louisa Thomas in the New Yorker (documenting Naomi Osaka’s struggles).

As Olympian Allyson Felix (the most decorated female track & field of all-time) said of Biles’ actions, “To see her choose herself, we’re going to see the effects of that for the next generation.”

To which I say – Let’s hope so.

My text highlights appear below – with links to each original article.

 

TIME Magazine Athlete of the Year 2021 – Simone Biles

 

BY ALICE PARK AND SEAN GREGORY

 

DECEMBER 9, 2021

 

Original article at = https://time.com/athlete-of-the-year-2021-simone-biles/

 

Around 9 p.m. on July 27, as Simone Biles soared high above the vault at the Tokyo Olympics, she lost herself. You could see the confusion in her eyes, which darted sideways instead of locking onto the ground as she made her way back to earth. She would later reveal that she was suffering from a frightening mental hiccup, known as “the twisties,” that left her unsure of her whereabouts in midair.

 

As the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in a sport that captivates the globe every four years, Biles is all about control. Her life is dedicated to micromanaging every possible element—her diet, her training, her sleep—that goes into performing, so when the lights are brightest, and the stakes highest, little is left to chance. But for Biles, control isn’t just about winning; it can be the difference between life and death. She now has four skills named after her, each a breathtaking combination of daring flips and twists. Avoiding disaster requires a constant, firm grip on mental acuity.

 

On that night, however, the careful tapestry of control that Biles, 24, had stitched began to unravel. Or at least started to, until she responded in a way that stunned millions of viewers around the world. In the middle of the Olympics for which she had trained for five years, and which was supposed to be the triumphant capstone on a historic career, Biles slipped on her warm-up suit, packed her competition bag and told her teammates she wouldn’t be competing with them, but rather cheering them on in the team event. Her mind and body weren’t in sync, she said, which put her at serious risk. She also withdrew from her next four events, returning only to participate in the final one. At an Olympics in which five gold medals for Biles seemed preordained, she won a team silver and a balance-beam bronze.

 

For her teammates, her withdrawal from events was a decision they didn’t have time to process as they scrambled to fill her position in the lineups. “We all knew we had to continue not without her, but for her,” says Sunisa Lee, who stepped up to win the all-around gold in Tokyo. “What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.”

 

An athlete’s clout is increasingly measured in much more than wins and losses. If 2020 showcased the power of athletes as activists after the murder of George Floyd, this year demonstrated how athletes are uniquely positioned to propel mental health to the forefront of a broader cultural conversation. While a few sports stars have opened up about mental health—Michael Phelps, for instance, has been candid about his post-Olympic depression—in 2021, the discussion became more wide-reaching and sustained. After withdrawing from the French Open in May to prioritize her well-being, citing anxiety, Naomi Osaka wrote in a TIME cover essay, “It’s O.K. not to be O.K.” Biles, by dint of her status at one of the world’s most watched events, raised the volume. “I do believe everything happens for a reason, and there was a purpose,” she tells TIME in an interview nearly four months later. “Not only did I get to use my voice, but it was validated as well.”

 

While supporters lauded Biles, critics lambasted her for “quitting.” But what Biles did transcended the chatter: she fought the stigma that has long silenced athletes, and shrugged off the naysayers who belittled her decision. “If I were going to quit, I had other opportunities to quit,” she says. “There is so much I’ve gone through in this sport, and I should have quit over all that—not at the Olympics. It makes no sense.”

 

A month after the Games, Biles put her vulnerability on display once again. Along with three other of the hundreds of other athletes who had been sexually abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar, Biles gave emotional testimony before the Senate about the failures of institutions like the FBI, USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to stop him.

 

Colin Kaepernick, no stranger to criticism for taking a stand, praises Biles’ “grace, eloquence and courage.” “Simone Biles has used her remarkable position as the world’s greatest gymnast ever to inspire a long overdue global conversation on mental health,” he tells TIME. “Her influence extends far beyond the realm of sports and shows us that another world—a better world—is possible when we speak our truths with integrity and authenticity.”

 

At a time when anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing—the CDC reports a 50% rise in suicide attempts by teenage girls during the pandemic—and many people are struggling with what they owe themselves vs. what others demand of them, Biles made clear the importance of prioritizing oneself and refusing to succumb to external expectations. With the eyes of the world upon her, she took the extraordinary step of saying, That’s enough. I’m enough.

 

Biles thought she was, as she puts it, “good to go” before the Games. In retrospect, she acknowledges that she was shouldering a heavy load as she trained. She was the face of Team USA, and fans around the globe were anticipating watching her gravity-defying skills. Gradually, she began to feel the Olympics were less about her fulfillment and more about theirs.

 

In the past, when she left the gym, she didn’t allow issues with certain skills to spill over into the rest of her day. But as Tokyo loomed, “my mind was racing and I wasn’t going to sleep as easily,” she says. The pandemic, which had delayed the Games from 2020, played a huge role in that, she thinks, since safety protocols meant she was limited to going to the gym and staying home. For the gregarious Biles, that meant more time alone with her thoughts. Things only got worse in Japan. “We couldn’t hang out because of COVID-19 protocols,” she says, “so things you normally don’t think about because you don’t have time, now you have hours on end to think about—those doubts, those worries and those problems.”

 

Biles is the only survivor of the Nassar sexual abuse scandal still competing, and pushing for USAG and USOPC to be held responsible is part of what’s driven her over the past few years. “I definitely do think it had an effect,” she says of that burden. “It’s a lot to put on one person. I feel like the guilt should be on them and should not be held over us. They should be feeling this [pain], not me.”

 

It took Biles about a year after the first Nassar survivors came forward to reveal publicly that she is one of them; her mother Nellie remembers Biles calling her in tears in 2017, saying she needed to talk to her. Training every day only served as a reminder of what she had been through and the lack of accountability by USAG. Biles didn’t feel she could even drive herself to and from her therapy sessions, so Nellie did, waiting outside in the car in case her daughter needed her.

 

That work, Biles felt, mentally prepared her for her second Olympics, which she attended without family because of COVID-19 restrictions. She had stopped going to therapy for about six months before the Games, Nellie says, insisting, “I’m fine, Mom.” But after her scare on the vault, she called Nellie crying. “The only thing Simone kept saying was, ‘Mom, I can’t do it. I can’t do it,’” says Nellie. In the days that followed, Biles says she got support from Team USA’s mental-health experts, who were on-site for the first time at an Olympics. That helped her make another courageous choice: competing in the balance-beam final. “At that point, it was no longer about medaling, but about getting back out there,” she says. “I wanted to compete at the Olympics again and have that experience that I came for. I didn’t really care about the outcome. On that beam, it was for me.”

 

Biles’ assuredness in speaking her truth and taking ownership of her fate offered permission for athletes and non-athletes alike to talk more openly about challenges they’d once kept to themselves. “Sacrifice gives back way more than it costs,” says Kevin Love, a five-time NBA All-Star whose 2018 discussion of his in-game panic attacks helped start to destigmatize mental struggles in his sport. “I do believe that it often takes one person to change the trajectory of a whole system.”

 

Olympian Allyson Felix, who gave birth to her daughter Camryn in 2018, knows how athletes are expected to make winning their everything. She says Biles will have more influence for stepping back and taking stock of what really mattered than she would have by snapping up more medals. “To see her choose herself, we’re going to see the effects of that for the next generation,” says Felix, who became the most decorated female track-and-field athlete of all time in Tokyo. “When thinking about role models for Cammy, wow, here is someone showing you can choose your mental health over what the world says is the most important thing.”

 

The message is already being put into practice. As head coach for women’s gymnastics at the University of Arkansas, Olympian Jordyn Wieber, another Nassar survivor, sees Biles’ decision as an opportunity for her team to “take those lessons she’s displaying on a worldwide level and apply them to their daily lives as student athletes.” During the Olympics, Ty-La Morris, 14, an aspiring gymnast from the Bronx, stayed up past her bedtime to watch coverage of the gymnastics events. When she heard people questioning Biles’ fortitude, she defended her. “Everybody kept coming after her, and nobody was in her shoes,” she says. Witnessing a Black woman thrive in a traditionally white sport gives Morris the confidence that she too can make the Olympics, but in addition, she’s now more likely to tell her coach if she’s having difficulty, which she wouldn’t have been comfortable doing before.

 

Experts agree that especially for young Black women, Biles’ actions were a signal that it’s acceptable to claim agency over both their minds and their bodies. Since the days of slavery, says LaNail Plummer, a therapist who specializes in providing mental-health services to Black and LGBTQ communities in the D.C. area, the bodies of Black women have been subject to fetishization: for purposes of labor, reproduction or athletic entertainment. Throughout their careers, for example, tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams have been the targets of racist and sexist comments because of their appearances. “Our bodies have always been under scrutiny,” says Plummer. “Oftentimes, Black women are not given the freedom to be able to just be authentic. Oftentimes, they have to be what somebody asked them or designed for them to be.”

 

So when a Black female athlete like Biles takes visible steps to safeguard her own mental and physical health, to indicate that it’s worth protecting, that action carries a special power. Plummer has noticed that since Tokyo, more personal and professional contacts have initiated conversations about their mental health. This is significant, as research has found that many Black women feel they must project an image of invulnerability and the stigma around mental health deters them from seeking help. And although Black adults are more likely than white ones to report symptoms of emotional distress, only 1 in 3 Black adults who needs mental-health care receives it. “It is a privilege of people who have money to see a therapist,” says Reuben Buford May, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies race and culture. “Intertwined with that is that African Americans have disproportionately been among the poor and have not been able to have health care to pay for mental-health services.”

 

Biles alone won’t change mental-health inequities or force a society that has long paid lip service to the importance of mental health to do more. But she made it that much harder to look away. And, according to school psychologist Shawna Kelly, a member of the National Association of School Psychologists’ board of directors, Biles’ actions will help accelerate a trend that was already under way. Recently, Kelly has seen more kids asking for help, as well as expressing concern for their friends. “Often that’s before a real crisis, which is where I feel there is more opportunity to work with kids preventively and proactively.”

 

In June, before she had any idea of the experiences to come, Biles had Maya Angelou’s And still I rise tattooed on her collarbone. “It’s a reminder and a tribute to everything I had been through, and that I always come out on top,” she says. The Olympics did not go the way she or anyone else expected, but she’s not wallowing in what-ifs. She’s back in therapy, just finished headlining a U.S. tour and is feeling confident about the decision she made in Tokyo. “I was torn because things weren’t going the way I wanted,” she says. “But looking back, I wouldn’t change it for anything.” —With reporting by Nik Popli and Simmone Shah

 

 

 

A Year That Changed How Athletes Think About Mental Health

 

The psychological challenges of sports have been talked about for ages. In 2021, athletes in a number of disciplines took action.

 

By Louisa Thomas

December 20, 2021

 

Original article at = https://www.newyorker.com/culture/2021-in-review/a-year-that-changed-how-athletes-think-about-mental-health

 

Back in February, it felt like an ordinary instance of something extraordinary: Naomi Osaka, losing and facing match point against Garbiñe Muguruza, in the fourth round of the Australian Open, unfurled a top-spin forehand that curved into the far corner, forcing an error by Muguruza. Osaka went on to win the match and, three rounds later, the title. It was her second Grand Slam in a row and her fourth in three years. She had other, more spectacular highlights in the tournament: a slice drop volley off her shoelaces against Ons Jabeur; a forehand down the center of the court so powerful that Serena Williams, standing just a few feet away, barely leaned toward it. But it was the saved match point that I returned to during the next few months, when I thought about Osaka’s performance in Melbourne. It was one of those moments that sports used to offer me with some regularity—a moment when everything else fell away, and only the stakes of the competition mattered.

 

I hadn’t experienced that feeling much during the previous year, for all the obvious reasons. When Osaka lifted the trophy in Australia, things were not back to normal, of course, nor did they even seem that way—Melbourne was just emerging from a short but brutal lockdown, not its first, and Jennifer Brady, Osaka’s opponent in the final, had begun her time in Australia in a two-week quarantine, doing agility drills in the space beside her hotel bed. But the mood was starting to shift. There were people in the stands. The coronavirus vaccines were becoming more widely available, and the worst of a brutal winter wave of infections was receding. Restaurants were reopening. Tom Brady had just won another Super Bowl. Soon, the weather warmed, and spring training started. The pandemic hadn’t ended, but it felt possible to imagine the day that it might. Sports, always a fun-house mirror of the wider world, reflected that sense of possibility.

 

The mood didn’t last. Many people refused to get vaccinated; some parts of the world could not get enough vaccines from the wealthier countries that had them; the covid death toll for 2021 caught up with that of 2020, and later surpassed it. The feeling that came to predominate was not hopefulness but whiplash, in sports as in everything else. It was not clear, anymore, what even counted for normalcy, or what should.

 

In the midst of all this, toward the end of May, Osaka posted a long note on social media explaining that she was not going to do any press during the French Open. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote. Osaka’s candor elicited both praise and pushback. On Reddit, Osaka’s sister, evidently trying to defend her, suggested that Osaka was trying to insulate herself from criticism of her play on clay. But Osaka’s remarks seemed to hint at something more serious. A week later, after the four Grand Slam tournaments issued a joint statement threatening fines for any player who did not speak to the media, she pulled out of the French Open altogether, and then she took to social media again, where she elaborated on the reference to mental health in her initial post, explaining that she had suffered from periods of depression ever since she was catapulted into stardom, in 2018, by beating Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final.

 

Osaka is hardly the first prominent athlete to speak openly about her psychological struggles. In the past several years, in particular, stars in a range of sports have publicly discussed dealing with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. The N.B.A., the N.C.A.A., and even the N.F.L.—probably the league most closely associated with a man-up, get-over-it mentality—now have fairly robust counselling and mental-health services. Still, Osaka’s withdrawal seemed like the sort of event that could change how mental health was talked about in the sports world, and perhaps beyond it. This wasn’t only a matter of her candor; it was that she had chosen not to play.

 

In July, at the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team final. She had lost her air sense—gotten a case of “the twisties,” as gymnasts evocatively put it. Biles, the all-around favorite and the unofficial face of a controversial Games, had been competing in the aftermath of widespread sexual, emotional, and physical abuse in her sport—abuse that she herself had suffered. It was too much for anyone, she later acknowledged. Biles said that she hadn’t initially intended to make a statement; she simply knew that she was not in a state to compete. But, after she withdrew, Google searches of the phrase “mental health” spiked worldwide. At the Olympic Village, Biles was swarmed by athletes who wanted to thank her. She returned for the final in the beam, performing with a modified dismount and winning bronze. She said that she had made the decision to compete for herself, and no one else.

In October, the Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley stepped away from the N.F.L., to “focus on my mental wellbeing,” as he put it. The Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson missed three games while battling anxiety and depression. The former U.S. Open champion Bianca Andreescu announced that she would not be competing at the Australian Open, writing that she had been affected by frequent periods of isolation and her grandmother’s hospitalization with covid. She “was feeling the collective sadness and turmoil around and it took its toll on me,” she wrote. The U.S. soccer star Christine Press, after becoming the first player to join the much-hyped expansion team Angel City F.C., of the National Women’s Soccer League, announced that she was stepping away from the sport, for a time, to focus on her mental health and process the grief that followed the death of her mother. When, a few weeks later, the N.W.S.L. suspended games for a weekend, amid allegations that a prominent head coach had psychologically abused and sexually coerced players—one in a series of accusations of harrassment and misconduct within the league—the players’ association announced that the break had been demanded by the players, and was intended to give them “space to process this pain.” (The coach has denied most of the allegations.)

 

Most, though not all, of these athletes are Black, and it is surely not a coincidence that this has happened in the wake of a pandemic that, in the United States, has hit the Black community particularly hard. Osaka is one of many athletes who participated in the widespread protests for racial justice that followed the murder of George Floyd and that, for a time, in 2020, overtook even the coronavirus as the major story of the sports world. Public attention has subsided since then, but, for many, the hurt has not.

 

Putting aside the predictable bombast of the toy soldiers of the culture wars, the public response to Biles, Osaka, and others has been overwhelmingly positive. More and more people seem comfortable with the idea that mental health matters as much as physical health. “You have to take care of your brain just like you take care of your body,” the Tennessee Titans wide receiver A. J. Brown told reporters, after posting a video on TikTok and Instagram in which he talked about dealing with suicidal thoughts the year before. (Social media has figured prominently in the conversation about mental health in the past year, cutting both ways—heightening the intense scrutiny many athletes receive, but also allowing athletes to speak directly and candidly to fans and the public.) The stigma against talking about psychological pain is diminishing. This is a hugely positive thing.

 

And yet, however well-intentioned that conversation is, certain complexities are persistently elided or overlooked. You can perform an MRI to diagnose an A.C.L. tear, and then follow a well-established rehabilitation program that comes with a relatively predictable timetable for your return. Psychological issues are rarely so straightforward in their diagnosis or their treatment. The very phrase “mental health” is so broad as to become, at times, unhelpful. The phrase that people tend to avoid, of course, is “mental illness”—a tacit admission, perhaps, that these athletes are generally talking about more common psychological problems, and also, possibly, evidence that certain stigmas have not gone away.

 

Mental health has been invoked in serious ways by the athletes above and by other prominent sports figures, such as Michael Phelps, who has discussed suffering from depression so deep that he was unsure of whether he could emerge from it. It has also been invoked, for instance, by Aaron Rodgers, who, after weeks of trolling his team, the Green Bay Packers—and, apparently, devising a plan to avoid the covid vaccine—said that he spent the summer working “on my mental health.” Did he mean it, or was he being glib? It’s hard to say. Before the N.B.A. season began, the star point guard Ben Simmons said that he was done playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, despite the four years left on his contract. Many fans and even some of his teammates were openly frustrated with him, until he told the team that he wasn’t mentally ready to play—at which point his teammates, at least, moved to show their support. The timing of his statement, shortly after it became clear that Simmons would have to forfeit his salary if he simply refused to play, prompted cynicism among others, as did ​​Simmons’s initial refusal to engage with his team’s counselling services. (He reportedly worked with therapists provided by the N.B.A. players’ association, before finally agreeing to meet with the team’s counsellors.) His agent, Rich Paul, said that Simmons’s conflict with the team “furthered the mental-health issues for Ben.”

 

Reflexively doubting Simmons risks undermining the seriousness of these concerns; it is difficult to express skepticism without reinforcing the old stigma. In truth, though, athletes are almost inevitably imperfect role models for most of us when it comes to both physical and mental health. They train themselves to push their bodies—and their minds—toward extremes that can be at once awe-inspiring and unhealthy. They compete with torn cartilage and broken bones; they will themselves onward under pressure that would crush a normal person. We celebrate them for this, and rightly so: it is what allows them to perform almost unimaginable feats. But it often comes with a cost. This year, many athletes pointed that out, and some decided that, for them, the cost had become too steep.

 

Osaka missed Wimbledon. She returned to the international spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics. With so much time away from the tour, and with the intense scrutiny that came with representing Japan—she lit the torch for the Games—it wasn’t surprising when she was defeated in the third round. Still, it was clear that Osaka felt the loss deeply. A few weeks later, at the U.S. Open, she had a comfortable lead against the young, unranked Canadian player Leylah Fernandez; then her play began to unravel. More than once, she slammed her racquet into the ground in disgust.

 

After Osaka lost the match, she addressed the media, choking back tears. “I feel like, for me, recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief,” she said. “And then, when I lose, I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal.” The moderator of the press conference gave her the chance to end it, but, with visible effort, she kept speaking. “This is very hard to articulate,” she went on. “Well, basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”

 

My mind flashed back to that moment in Melbourne, when she faced match point. Confidence on the court is a real but narrow kind of courage; what Osaka was doing now seemed to require bravery of another order. As painful as it was to watch, there was hope in it, too—a chance, maybe, to redefine what success can mean, and what we consider, after all this, to be normal.

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