Biles’ struggles could inspire wider change around mental health

TOKYO: First it was Naomi Osaka, now weeks later a tearful Simone Biles (pic). Two of the biggest names in sport have publicly revealed that they are struggling with their mental health – and they could be the catalyst for wider change.

The superstar American gymnast Biles on Tuesday stunned the Tokyo Olympics when she pulled out of the women’s team final, saying: “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardise my health and my wellbeing.”

The 24-year-old had already hinted that she was feeling the immense pressure in the Japanese capital, writing on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”

Biles also pulled out of the all-around final and her participation in the rest of the Olympics is uncertain.

There was an outpouring of sympathy on social media for Biles, who is already a four-time Olympic gold medallist, that went beyond sport.

Writing on Twitter, Henrietta H. Fore, executive director of Unicef, thanked Biles “for being a role model and showing the world it’s okay to prioritise your mental health”.

Also on Tuesday, Osaka – who lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony – suffered a shock early exit in the tennis.

As a home hope and one of the faces of the Games, the 23-year-old said that there was “a lot of pressure”.

Biles and Osaka, who are aged just seven months apart, are by no means the only athletes to suffer in the public eye.

England and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford said that he too had suffered something similar when he was a teenager.

Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps and England cricketer Marcus Trescothick have also openly documented their mental struggles.

Julie-Ann Tullberg, an expert in sports psychology and sports journalism at Monash University in Australia, said that “mental health has long been swept under the carpet as a reason of under performance in high-pressure sporting events such as the Olympic Games”.

“However, athletes are now willing to talk about their pressures openly,” she said.

People deal with “performance anxiety” in all walks of life, said Tullberg, and that has been exacerbated by people across the world living in intermittent lockdowns in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“But people are now more willing to talk about it (their mental health),” she said.

“There are support networks offered to us all the time, we’re encouraged to seek support, and people are now taking those options because they’re not so fearful of the repercussions.”

Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said that Biles’ admission would help “normalise the conversation”.

“There has always been, within the athletic world, the emphasis on appearing physically fit and appearing mentally fit,” she told CBC/Radio-Canada.

“And that can further perpetuate a kind of silent suffering and self-isolation.” — AFP

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