Sport and mental health have always seemed to me to go hand-in-hand. From athletic friends telling me they do it for their head, to finding that going on a run helps when the stress piles on, it seems that exercise, and sport in general is a major asset to protecting our mental health. For this reason, when sport begins to negatively affect someone’s mental health, people can often be less willing to admit it.
During the Olympics this year, this became a topic of conversation after Gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of some of her events due to mental health concerns. Biles had qualified for all five individual events, but had ultimately withdrawn from four. This decision received a mixed reaction among viewers; some were glad to see Biles prioritising herself following the team events, others viciously condemned and attacked her online. The sentiment that as a professional athlete, she should have been able to “handle the pressure” was expressed on social media. I couldn’t disagree more. The idea that athletes must put up with tremendous pressure and condemnation if they fail because it’s simply their profession is nonsensical to me.
Sport has, and can always be, a very good means by which to improve your mental and physical health, build community and have fun. Despite this, there is a hesitancy to talk about, or even acknowledge how the pressure of competitive sport can turn ugly, and have catastrophic effects on one’s well being. The pressure from an event like the Olympics would have an extraordinary effect on any of us, and your mental health throughout the events must be an utmost priority. Nobody would expect an athlete to compete with a broken leg or arm; why is Simone Biles pulling out to protect her mental health any different? At a time when great strides have been made to destigmatise and start a conversation around the prevalence of mental illness, why are we so keen to rush to condemn an athlete for simply prioritising their health?
The amount of stress from any job can mean that taking a break for mental health reasons is necessary, and athletes are at the end of the day, doing their jobs. The condemnation Biles received for prioritising her health in the Olympics was unfair, and the culture of vicious condemnation in sporting events generally needs to be challenged. Mental health and sport shouldn’t be separate conversations – they need to be part of the same one. Sport can be an asset to your health, but it can also be a hindrance in certain instances. In short, Biles prioritising herself should be a welcome development in the sporting world.