Trigger Warning: Mentions of Molestation.
Recently, a Japanese player pulled out of the French Open after organisers threatened to expel her for not honouring media commitments. Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam champion, withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health issues.
Another athlete, Simone Biles, a US gymnast, pulled out of the Olympics earlier this week due to mental health issues. This ignited a cultural and political firestorm on Wednesday after right-wing critics and trolls attacked her for letting down her team and nation.
Her choice to exit the competition came hours after tennis star Osaka, the face of the Tokyo Olympics, failed in the third round of the singles competition. The Japanese favourite, who lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony, also cited the mental toll of her profession as the cause for her early exit.
“I put my mental health first because if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport, and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles told a media conference. “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you are.”
Biles touched upon the extra stress brought about by the Tokyo Olympics, which got delayed by a year due to the pandemic and wreaked havoc with training programmes. “It’s been stressful, these Olympic Games. It’s been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year,” she said.
This added pressure is showing even on some of China’s athletes. In the montage of Olympic emotions, it’s not often you see the visuals of a teared up Chinese athlete. It’s rare to see them submit to the pressure; rarer even for them to show it.
However, it happened, of all places, at the shooting range where China’s players have created a reputation of being impenetrable in victory or defeat. But Wang Luyao, a Chinese rifle shooter likened to win a medal, surrendered to the pressure and finished 18th in the 10m air rifle competition.
Consumed in self-guilt, she wrote a short message for her followers: “Sorry everyone, I admit I chickened out.” Wang would not have foretold the storm that the Weibo post would provoke. She got threatened and abused, and finally, the South China Morning Post reported, China censors had to remove dozens of posts and deactivate at least 33 accounts that attacked the athlete.
“I have failed, and I will start from the beginning,” Wang wrote again, in a new post, almost apologising for her apology.
There is a stigma surrounding the mental health of athletes. Showing emotions in a profession that demands physical strength is difficult.
This is one of the main reason why elite athletes with mental health issues don’t seek the help they need. This finding was published in a special issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine devoted to the topic.
A poor understanding of mental illness, busy schedules, and gender stereotyping also play a part.
“Athletes fear, possibly rightly so, that disclosing mental health symptoms or disorders would reduce their chances of maintaining or signing a professional team contract or an advertising campaign,” note the researchers.
Talking about it can help ease this stigma. And significant efforts are needed to overcome stigma and boost mental health literacy among elite athletes.
“Coaches could be important agents for supporting positive mental health attitudes within the elite athlete environment, including fostering an environment of mental health treatment-seeking,” they concluded.
However, when coaches are like Larry Nassar, it can be for the worse.
Nassar was accused of sexually molesting hundreds of women gymnasts and was given life in prison. Moreover, US gymnasts were forced to perform even when they were injured. This all created a sense of fear and pressure in their minds. They were hushed and were not allowed to talk about this in public.
But, appropriate mechanisms can enable athletes to talk about mental health.
Michael Phelps, a swimmer with more medals than anyone in Olympic history has spoken candidly for years about his struggles with depression. Longtime NFL receiver Brandon Marshall has gone public with his mental health issues, as has 2012 Olympic silver medalist in high jump Brigetta Barrett.
There are a slew of other issues, such as eating disorders, extreme stress levels, and burnout, that haven’t even been brought to the public’s attention yet.
Neha, 2o, a state-level football player has represented Delhi State U-18 team on several occasions. She feels that it was really brave of Naomi to come up about her mental health concerns so openly and take such a significant step that may have far-reaching consequences for her entire career.
“Her decision to withdraw from such a prominent tournament is also ‘revolutionary’ since now, people, board directors and team owners would recognise that a player’s mental health is just as vital as their physical health. Right now, the best thing to do is to let her be, to allow her to heal in her own time, and to give her some space,” Neha said.
She said that she has experienced anxiety off the field. There’s a lot on her mind during pre-season and tournaments. “During that time, my mood swings are intense. The night before matches, I barely get any sleep, and it’s become something of a pre-game ritual for me. Pre-game nervousness is just one of the issues I deal with during tournaments.“
She added that she broke down after losing a finals match once, and it was as the team captain. Since she couldn’t handle herself after the struggle through the entire tournament, she stopped playing for 5 months.
“I couldn’t get back on the field because I was afraid of the taunts and the comments waiting for me. After that burnout, I went through a time of static performance stage where I couldn’t seem to motivate myself to perform better, and it took me about a year to pull up my socks and be myself again.“
She also said that she has experienced a few anxiety attacks in the past, which were always dismissed as pre-game nerves.
She noted that everything can influence an athlete’s overall performance, from locker room conversations to the coach’s pep talk to the reaction of their fans and family. “Even the tiniest change can have a tremendous impact, yet most people are unaware of this.“
She wanted people to know that it is extremely difficult to perform flawlessly without making any mistakes, and people are quick to criticise when an athlete loses, claiming that the athlete must not be practicing enough or that the athlete lacks talent.
“Fans have no idea what it’s like to be under such intense pressure and expectation, so they resort to social media and question the players’ ability, often urging them to retire, which only adds to the player’s anxiety. These insults and comments make it difficult for them to concentrate and focus during regular practice sessions and then eventually in tournaments.“
She said what helped her was her team mates. “They knew exactly what I was going through because they’d been there before, and they were there for me no matter what. My parents and coach did assist me. but it wasn’t much help in terms of results. It did take constant talking to peers, teammates, parents, my team coach and manager to help me eventually heal and get back on my feet.”
Similarly, Kavya Sawhney, a lawn tennis player at the international level, feels that mental health is a huge aspect in any sport. “There are two sides of it, physical and mental. If you feel great physically but horrible mentally and are struggling emotionally, it’s really hard to focus on one task and be able to play the sport peacefully. Specially for me in tennis if I am not calm and focused, I will make errors early in the game and get frustrated easily.”
She too has experienced mental health issues. “There was a low phase in my career where I felt that I wasn’t going to get better and I kept losing a lot of matches, even though they were matches that I could win easily. I realised that what had changed was only my mentality. I stopped believing that I could, lost my confidence and started being hard on myself and eventually started feeling like giving up.”
What helped her was meditation. “All I had to do is put in consistent work that would give me the confidence I needed again and I had to start believing in myself again. I started focusing on all my achievements and how far I’ve come and it wasn’t to give up. That worked best for me.”
She feels one can be more mindful of mental health by questioning themselves whether they feel okay about something or not and recognise things that could potentially make them lose focus or their peace of mind. “Meditation has always helped me realise these things and helps me focus more on things that bring true purpose to my life.”
However, there is still a long way for sports associations to realise this. It will take time but we will get there!