• Keeley Osborn and Thu Nguyen

Establishing Boundaries and Building Resilience

Simone Biles Withdraws From Several Olympic Events

According to the NCAA, “ ... in 2015, 30 percent of student-athletes stated that, over the past month, they felt ‘intractably overwhelmed,’ and nearly one-quarter reported feeling ‘exhausted from the mental demands of their sport’” (Mawdsley, 244). It’s no wonder that even an elite athlete, like Simone Biles, has struggled to perform at top strength due to her mental health. Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team finals at the Tokyo Olympics after experiencing the twisties during her first vault, her first event of this competition. Fortunately, she was able to perform well and even placed 3rd in the beam finals on the last day of the artistic gymnastics competition, but she missed the remainder of her events because her mental health prevented her from competing safely and to the best of her abilities. Biles made the courageous and smart decision to prioritize her well-being over competing on the world stage.

Setting Boundaries: What is it and Why is it Important?

“Alex” Caroline Robboy, founder of The Center for Growth, works with children and adults with mental health disorders. In doing so, she provides explanations for what boundaries are and why they are important. Robboy notes that boundaries “give measure to the amount of time, money, emotional resources, or energy you can afford to give.” These same measurements hold true for Biles. The gymnast invested an incredible amount of time, money, and energy into her sport. But, when her mind prevented her from executing her skills for the team finals in Tokyo, she made the difficult decision that competing wasn’t worth risking injury. Biles recognized that she couldn’t afford to invest any more energy competing when she was already struggling mentally and not able to physically execute her skills correctly.

Robboy also establishes the importance of setting a boundary between yourself and others. She states that boundaries, “help define your sense of self by separating your needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings from those of others’.” Although some fans of Biles were disappointed in her decision to withdraw from multiple gymnastics events in Tokyo, she did what was best for herself rather than allowing her fans’ thoughts and opinions to come in the way of her own needs and feelings. She refused to compete in any event that could potentially cause her to experience the twisties again. So, she just competed in the beam individual finals because this was the apparatus she felt confident enough to complete since she could avoid twisting in the air.

Biles is an inspiration for other young athletes that may be struggling with mental health. She stresses the importance of being honest with your mind and body by stating, “ ... put your mental health first. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the biggest stage. That’s more important than any other medal you could win.” She knew that winning gold medals wasn’t worth risking a physical injury and, potentially, her gymnastics career. As an athlete, it’s crucial to establish boundaries and be aware of when you are incapable of performing your best due to mental health struggles or physical injury. It’s important to seek help and guidance when faced with these challenging obstacles.

Student-Athlete Perspectives on Setting Boundaries

We spoke to a couple of Amherst College athletes to gauge their reactions to Biles’s decision to push pause on her Olympic journey.

“I think Simone’s decision, like Naomi Osaka’s, shows us that everyone is human,” said Catherine “Catie” Burkhart, a former two-sport student-athlete and captain of both the women’s tennis and squash teams. “Even though it sometimes appears that they are doing superhuman things, at the end of the day, they face mental health challenges just like millions of Americans. I think that while millions of people love to watch Simone and Naomi compete, their fans' desire to see them play should not come at the expense of the player’s suffering, and sometimes everyone just needs a break…”

Yaya Zarroug, a basketball player on the men’s basketball team, also fully supports Biles’s decision to prioritize her mental health, stating, “[m]y initial thoughts were compassion and love for her going through enough mental pain to pull out of an event in a tournament as important as the Olympics. My thoughts now are still compassion and profound respect for staying true to herself despite public sentiments. She set a true example for all athletes, especially after NBA star Kyrie Irving received similar backlash after deciding he needed a break and a mental recharge.”

As a student-athlete, Yaya has set his own boundaries. He makes it clear that, “the way I operate with my sport of basketball is I play when I want to. I only play this game because I enjoy it and I would rather quit than play when I’m no longer enjoying it.”

Another Student-Athlete Perspective

Jamahra Richardson, a former student-athlete as a member of the women’s tennis team at Knox College, knows a thing or two about pressures in athletics. Her own experiences contribute to her empathy toward Biles’s decision. “I think I have had the same experience when I was playing tennis for my college team,” she said. “I began to get extremely stressed when trying to distribute my time efficiently between classes and competition. This experience allowed me to understand the stress of trying to bring in a win as a team but also taking care of myself as a student and individual.”

Setting boundaries for student-athletes is hard not only because of different external pressures but also the feelings for the team. Richardson shared her difficult experiences between choosing the team and taking care of herself while being an active student-athlete. Similar to Biles, she chose to prioritize her mental health. “Sometimes, I would take a break from my sport and just focus on my classes and grades,” she said. “This positively affected my mental health but at the same time would make me feel a little sad about leaving my team until they told me that they understand and supported me taking care of my health.”

It can be uncomfortable for student-athletes when choosing between a potential win for the team and their mental health. Even though Burkhart’s and Richardson’s stories are different from that of Biles’s, they share the same support for her decision and can comprehend the emotions surrounding the stress of and struggles to set and maintain boundaries as student-athletes.

Reducing The Risk of Mental Health Disorders

Biles’s decision raised awareness about setting limitations in sports. Establishing these necessary boundaries is necessary for the mental health of athletes, as it reduces the risk of having mental health disorders. In particular, athletes are often diagnosed with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse. In fact, according to a study by Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, “33 [%] of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions” (Mawdsley, 246). Besides setting boundaries, it is necessary for athletes to build resiliency to guard against mental health disorders.

A Foundation For Resilience

Resilience is the response to various adverse events that student-athletes endure during their athletic life (i.e., extremely demanding physical tasks, competitive failures, encounters with other players, embarrassing situations, and injuries) (Bernstein et al., 2011; Southwick et al., 2014 as cited in Trigueros et al., 2019). Specifically, resilience is a set of qualities that represent an athlete's capacity to overcome unpleasant and stressful situations (Trigueros et al., 2019). It also plays an important role in the growth of athletes as it is involved in athletic goals (Trigueros et al., 2019).

The role of resilience has been reported in many recent studies. It can help athletes cope better with stress and recovery (Codonhato et al., 2018) and contribute to higher levels of adaptation on behavioral, emotional, and social levels of athletes (Trigueros et al., 2019). Student-athletes can experience stress and injuries due to heavy training schedules, academic pressure, and competitiveness. Resilience, meanwhile, may help reduce these risk factors of stress and strengthen the components that contribute to recovery. According to Kellman & Kallus (2001) (as cited in Codonhato et al., 2018), athletes with high resilience levels can motivate and establish their goals, use psychological skills to prepare, enjoy their sports, and connect better with their teammates. This fact indicates that athletes with high resilience levels may have better recovery. In addition, there is an inverse correlation between resilience and emotional exhaustion and lack of energy, indicating burn-out and struggle to focus/make decisions in athletes (Kellman & Kallus, 2001 as cited in Codonhato et al., 2018). Therefore, there is lower psychological exhaustion in student-athletes with higher levels of resilience.

The process of building resilience is not easy for athletes, as it is influenced by vulnerability and protection factors, both internally and externally (Trigueros et al., 2019). Student-athletes are faced with the need to strengthen their self-determined motivation, self-esteem, and emotional intelligence, as they are positive factors. According to Trigueros et al., (2019), self-determined motivation and self-esteem are positively correlated with resilience. At the same time, emotional intelligence positively predicts self-determined motivation and self-esteem (Trigueros et al., 2019). Resilience, then, is also positively correlated with high scores in emotional intelligence. Finding a healthy training environment and practicing self-reflection can nurture athletes' motivation, self-esteem, and emotional intelligence, especially when having a supportive network.

Coaching also plays a significant role in building resilience in athletes. In a recent study, coaching is reported to be essential in fostering resilience (Wylleman et al., 2016 as cited in Kegelaers & Wylleman, 2019). According to Wylleman et al., (2016) (as cited in Kegelaers & Wylleman, 2019), there are several designed training strategies in coaching programs to strengthen resilience, including anticipating setbacks and pressure training. Coaching philosophy is directly involved in the development of athletes. For example, coaching philosophies focus on personal responsibility, personal improvement, and learning from experience of a whole person’s development (Bennie & O’Connor, 2010; Wylleman et al., 2016 as cited in Kegelaers & Wylleman , 2019). These are qualities that foster the development of resilience of athletes.

Resilience has a great impact on student-athlete mental health, especially to help students guard against psychological distress, emotional exhaustion, and enhance recovery. Even though resilience is easily affected by different negative and positive factors, it is not impossible for student-athletes to build resilience. Nurturing self-motivation, self-esteem, and emotional intelligence are musts to strengthen resilience. And it requires effort from both the athlete and the coaches. Athletes should be able to expect their coaches to improve training programs, mental health support, and coaching environments to foster resilience.

Mental Health Disorders in Student-Athletes

Overcoming injuries and illnesses is indicative of resilience, which helps guard against serious psychological distress. It is clear that athletes’ mental health is susceptible to being negatively affected by numerous risk factors. Elements that are capable of increasing the risk of mental health symptoms and disorders include a heavy training schedule (physically and mentally) (Beable et al., 2017; Nedelec et al., 2018 as cited in Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019), constant push to improve performance (Beable et al., 2017; Nedelec et al., 2018 as cited in Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019), unexpected events (health problems of self or of a family member) (Gucciardi DF., 2017 as cited in Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019) and athletes who experienced undesired retirement due to de-selection or injury (Brown et al., 2017 as cited in Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019). Despite the common risk factors of mental health disorders, athletes have difficulties in seeking help and opening up about their struggles. They fear that mental health disorders would reduce their chances of maintaining or signing a professional team contract (Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019).

Sexuality is another factor that increases the risk of mental disorders. Women are often prevented from playing several sports because of cultural beliefs, religion, sexualization, stereotypes, and traditional gender roles (Pfister, 2010 as cited in Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019). And it's not exclusive to women. , Male athletes have to face toxic masculinity and sexualization while playing in a variety of sports (Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019). As a result, the likelihood of mental disorders in athletes has increased significantly, and it is tough for athletes to face these risks without any help.

Fortunately, it is reported that coaches play an important role that can positively support athletes to seek treatment and create a de-stigmatizing environment (Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2019). Biles’ situation is a perfect example of showcasing the benefit of coaching and learning when to prioritize mental health. With the help of her coach and support team, she became more resilient by learning how to cope while under pressure. In the end, developing a lifelong trait that will propel her to excel in all future endeavors and help to destigmatize mental health is more valuable than capturing gold.


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