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athletes choosing mental health over “success”

Recently, a new trend has arisen among athletes. This trend does not involve the latest diet, lifestyle hack, or supplement. Rather, it’s a massive shift in focus from hardware to software. The outer to the inner. It is a shift from physical health to mental health.  

Physical health has always been seen as the hallmark of wellbeing in athletes because athleticism has always been associated with the physical rather than the mental or emotional. On the Greek statues of old, we do not see chiseled minds – we see muscle. A strong body has always been emphasized in athletics. A strong mind? Not as much. However, this may change given the trajectory of mental health awareness and the effect it will have on those who participate in sports. 

Simone Biles is an American gymnast who is not only considered to be the country’s best, but also a groundbreaking athlete in every regard. She is considered by many to be the most accomplished American woman to ever compete in gymnastics. Yet, in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she experienced a mental crisis referred to as “the twisties” in which a gymnast essentially loses track of reality while in midair. As a result, she sat out two major events in order to focus on her mental health before coming back and winning a bronze. This decision was met with both major praise and criticism from different sources.  

Many conservative media outlets accused Biles of quitting. Yet, many Olympians, such as former Olympian Michael Phelps, supported Biles decision to skip these events. Phelps allegedly had his own issues with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.  More still, prominent figures such as Michelle Obama and Justin Bieber voiced their support of Biles’ decision. Biles was astonished and incredibly grateful for the support she received. This case was seen by many casual Olympic viewers who would have never associated mental health issues with athletes prior to this.  

Biles was not the only athlete who struggled with mental illness. Tennis star Naomi Osaka made the decision to forgo the 2021 Wimbledon cup and withdraw from the 2021 French open. French Open officials required her to attend press conferences to which she explicitly stated she did not feel comfortable with. Osaka had long struggled with social anxiety and depression, leading to her refusal to attend these events.  

As a result of this, she was fined 15,000 dollars by the French Open organizers, after which Osaka dropped out completely. While Osaka did receive a fair share of criticism, she too was met with an outpouring of support from fans and fellow tennis players. One of them was tennis superstar Rafael Nadal who also skipped Wimbledon and the Olympics to focus on his mental and physical health.  

Similarly, Basketball Player Kevin Love and Boxer Tyson Fury have been open about their personal struggles with mental health. Fury even admitted that he considered suicide on more than one occasion. Basketball and boxing have long been seen as two of the most aggressive, testosterone-laden, achievement-based sports in the history of…well, sports. Yet, we now see that things like depression and anxiety can exist in even the most competitive and “hardcore” of environments.   

Koolshooters

This new trend of athletes opening up about their mental health has taken the world by storm and has made the discussion about mental health far more prominent. Athletes that had once been seen as the couriers of strength and prowess have now come forward with their experiences of crippling mental illness. People who we once thought were invincible now seem unusually human and relatable.  

What does this mean for society in general? Well, it could mean that people will begin to treat sports as less about winning and more about growth and optimal function. Perhaps people will be far more observant with their children as they begin to play sports. Numerous changes can and will occur from this new, software-based outlook on athletics, most of them human-centered. The focus will become less about dominating on the outside, and more about improving on the inside.  

3 thoughts on “athletes choosing mental health over “success””

  1. Well done and well written… Such an important topic for communication and self-awareness and confidence… I so appreciate your expression Graves!

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  2. Important piece. It’s one thing to talk about the epithets of mental health…it’s another thing to see it reflected in some of our culture’s most celebrated icons. Thank you for shedding light on this.

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  3. Dear Graves Gladney, you present heartening evidence that mental health challenges may now be considered legitimate reasons for withdrawing from sports competitions. By aligning the significance of physical injuries with disturbances in mental health, these courageous athletes are driving a wedge into the impenetrable block of stigma. Thank for these enlightening stories, particularly for those like myself, who do not have a hand on the pulse of media.

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