• Lauren Smith

Flipping the Narrative to Prioritize Mental Health in Athletes

Kerri Strug sticks the landing. Torn ligaments and a sprained ankle didn’t stop her from competing in the vault competition in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Efforts that turned her into a lauded athlete with viewers painting it as brave and heroic and, ultimately, were elements that forced an early retirement.

By contrast, Simone Biles is deemed physically fit to compete, yet she removed herself from competing in the women’s gymnastics team final in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Efforts that critics have seized on and used to portray her in a negative light. While a few critics bemoan her actions, thousands more have applauded her. It’s demonstrative of how the conversation surrounding mental health has changed over the past 25 years.

It’s easy to critique the injuries we can’t see. But, with more athletes competing at the highest levels taking time away from their sport in some of the biggest competitions in their respective sports, one aspect of mental health has become abundantly clear: mental health is a spectrum that can affect everyone. It doesn’t discriminate, and we need to treat it as seriously as any physical injury.

Immense pressure to perform can supersede our bodies telling us to quit. The fear of letting down teammates, while being recognized as one of the world’s toughest competitors, might exacerbate the same reason the athlete is contemplating a break. Now, instead of staying in the competition, athletes are realizing they are more than their sport.

This conversation and the ripple effect—how we react to decisions made by elite athletes like Naomi Osaka and Biles—will be felt by athletes of all ages, sports, and skill levels. How we talk about it and what we do to educate athletes now will set the stage for how they compete and cope in the future.

These athletes didn’t sign up to be trailblazers, yet they’re carving out the path that solidifies the importance of mental health education. We empathize with Biles, her teammates, and the sports community. She didn’t choose to endure the pressures that are associated with participating in her passion. But, she did choose to be an outspoken advocate for athletes’ mental health. And, for that, the Sports Health Institute is grateful. In this case, she doesn’t need a medal to walk away a winner.

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