Closing the Gap of Mental Health in Sports

Closing the Gap of Mental Health in Sports

What We Can Learn From Simone and Others Coming Forth About Their Mental Health

With Simone Biles withdrawing from the team competition and now the individual all around competitions in Tokyo, we are seeing a gap widen between two ways of thinking. On one side, you have advocates congratulating her for taking a stand on what is right for her and on the other you have people bashing her for her choices. This divide is what has lead to these mental health breaks being more and more frequent in recent years among the superhuman performers we look up to.

We seem to have forgotten that even superhumans are still humans first.

To understand what Simone (and other elite athletes such as Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Naomi Osaka, the list goes on) is going through is not easy especially if you’ve never been in their shoes.

I want to make one thing clear, I have not competed at the level these humans have, but I am familiar with some extent to the pressure and culture that is elite level athletics.

To begin to understand the climate we are in today, we need to first look at the culture that is sports as a whole. Traditionally, sports has praised the hyper-masculine alpha mentality of showing up when you need to. Think of the Michael Jordan flu game or Tiger at the 2008 US Open. Two iconic performances that praise both athlete’s abilities to play through adversity. Notice how these are moments in time though. These moments in time have now become the standard we hold professionals all across sports to. When rare instances become the expectation, unrealistic and insurmountable pressure is created. Make no mistake, these athletes feel that pressure and it can be crippling to not just how they perform on the court, but in their whole life.

What has been happening as of late in sports is a byproduct of hundreds of years of suppressed emotions being the normal for athletes. The media, society, and organizations all have placed value/worthiness on the athletes ability to shut off the external factors and perform. Because of this, athletes are being told consciously and subconsciously, that they won’t receive praise for honoring their emotions, only suppressing them in exchange for worth (i.e. medals, larger contracts).

Think back to the middle school cafeteria when you would twist your plastic water bottle until enough pressure was built up that the cap would explode across the room. This is what is happening inside the minds of athletes as a result of the culture we have created. We as a society constantly twist and twist, adding more and more pressure on to these humans. Each time they try and speak up and say “hey, this is getting a bit much” they’re met with, “well you’re getting paid to do this so suck it up” and they go quiet again. This feedback loop continues to happen when athletes aren’t provided the right outlets to release the pent up air inside the water bottle.

What we are seeing in sports as of late is because athletes have no other option. We have twisted and twisted and the cap is flying off when it matters the most.

The saddest part of this? Our mixed reaction as a society is furthering the problem. By bashing them and questioning their choices, we are saying they can’t express themselves if they want to be paid and praised for what they do. This backs them into a corner where the only viable option is withdrawing, a thought that eats them up inside. 

There is no question that these players want nothing more to play, but we have shifted the expectations of the game so that they play for our entertainment, not for their own expression. There is no bigger blow to the ego and identity of an athlete than giving up on their terms. As Will Smith once said, “I’m going to die before I get outworked.” Athletes and achievers alike would rather die than withdraw knowing they had more to give. So the fact that the best in the world at what they do are consciously choosing to withdraw should be a screaming red flag to us as a society to wake up. Yet we sit here behind our keyboards so quick to share our opinion on how they should live their lives that we are missing the whole point.

Every single one of us on this earth is a human first.

Even the G.O.A.T. is a human being and with that comes a spectrum of emotions, complex thoughts, and at its core: faults.

When we look at overall human optimization, aka our ability to perform at our true peak, it occurs when we have balance between expressing our masculine and feminine energies/emotions. In fact, vulnerability and expressing how we are truly feeling is a trigger to optimal state of consciousness. The more we are able to admit our faults, our struggles, the more we are able to play loose and be free.

The environment we have created in sports, and in cooperate culture in general, has stripped the humanness of these people. It has glorified the wrong values and left people with no other choice but to fall in line or risk being left behind.

What Simone, Naomi, and so many others are doing is true G.O.A.T. behavior. They are willing to risk being left behind to revolutionize how we view humans. It is controversial no doubt about it. Their legacies might have a few less Grand Slam Titles and Olympic Gold Medals attached to them, but they are displaying strength and bravery that will never show up in the stat line.

If we want to pave a way forward that benefits both the player and the spectator, it starts with giving both sides more grace.

After all, they both have more in common than either think: 

We are all human.

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