Messages of Hope

Sport and mental health

Published / by Sandy


This week, gymnastics superstar Simone Biles withdrew from the individual all-round competition in the team gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health concerns. She said it was important to “focus on my mental health” and “not jeopardize my health and well-being. Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. We have to protect our body and our mind. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”

Biles said tennis star Naomi Osaka, who cited her mental health when withdrawing from the French Open earlier this year, had inspired her to speak out about her own issues.

The athletes have been so much already just to get to the Olympics, coping with an ongoing COVID global pandemic, and without friends and family able to be with them, to support them. Simone got the ‘twisties’ (lost her spatial awareness) in a vault routine. Gymnastics routines can be dangerous, and any lack of confidence or self-doubt can have serious consequences.

Praise has been heaped upon her decision, like the following by Lauren Welch on a Facebook post: “Simone Biles is an amazing woman. We can learn a lot from her. She recognized that she was feeling the burden of all the pressure that was directed to her being perfect in all she could do as a gymnast. She recognized she was human and that she could not withstand this pressure at this time. She also knows that she is a great athlete and she loves what she does and she pushes herself to do more than is possible for most young gymnasts. With that knowledge, courage and wisdom she listened to her body, mind and spirit and knew it was not her time for a medal. She pulled herself out of competition and allowed others to shine at the Olympics. She is brave, courageous and wise beyond her years. We all can learn to listen to our body, mind and spirit to discern what our next step needs to be – and if we do that we all might be healthier in mind, body and spirit. The healthier we are in body, mind and spirit – the better our world will be”.

Needless to say there will be some pushback from people like broadcaster Piers Morgan, denigrating those who cite mental health issues as a reason to step back from sport for a while. A veiled ‘toughen up’ critique. Andrew Bolt said he was concerned about the “praise” heaped on Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympics. “She should get sympathy for pulling out, but I don’t think praise for actually quitting after muffing a vault and then walking out of the team.”

There is a back story, of course. Washington Post‘s Sally Jenkins writes that to this day, American Olympics officials continue to betray Simone Biles. They deny they had a legal duty to protect her and others from a rapist-child pornographer, Larry Nassar, even though they had  unambiguous and credible evidence that the gymnastics doctor was a serial sex assaulter. Corrupt officials covered it up, and favours were traded to ensure the issue was ‘bottom drawered’. The officials continue to evade responsibility in judicial manoeuvring.

They are Simone Biles’ tormenters.

Abuse is a current event for Simone Biles. Nothing was ever said to her, or efforts made to protect her. She has been frank about her profound lingering distrust of USA Gymnastics and her conviction that they will not do right by her and other athletes of her own accord. In a recent interview Simone Biles said one of the main reasons she came back for another Olympics at aged 24 was to try to ensure accountability. ‘If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to one side’.

The Olympics is no happy anniversary for Larry Nassar’s victims. ‘It is a huge trigger’, says Rachael Denhollander, whose police report against Nassar in August 2016 finally triggered the Michigan law enforcement investigation – led by women – that took him down. ‘This time is year is awful because it brings back what it was like. It brings back how hard it was to speak up, to verbalise it for the first time. This is when it all came out. And the body keeps score. It remembers those times of year and those anniversaries. I can’t even imagine trying to function’.

The body keeps score.

To perform the aerials that Biles does requires a wholesale commitment of mind and body. When you are suspended 10′ up in the air, upside down and twisting at the rate of a motorised motor, ‘You have to be 100% or 120% because, if you’re not the slightest bit, you can get hurt’, Biles said.

To perform at that height and that hazard required trust. Right now, Simone Biles has none. And why should she?

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