Three brains appear on a podium, wearing medals labelled 1st, 2nd, and 3rd
Credit: Katrina Siân Williams

It’s time to put mental health before medals

By Gabriel Wheway

Is the sporting world finally ready to commit to confronting the mental health crisis? 

When Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic women’s team event last month, the world’s greatest gymnast exposed that the heaviest burden of the Olympics is often the expectation to perform in them. Unlike most other athletes, Biles is held to the highest and most ridiculous expectations. She is not only the greatest gymnast in the world, but she is also a young Black woman dominating an industry that has continually discriminated against athletes of her race. At just 24 years old, she explained that she was far from the right frame of mind to perform the dangerous tumbling feats and subsequently pulled out of the individual all-around final. In the process of doing so, she has renewed a global conversation regarding mental health. Athletes have continually come forward to speak about the staging of the Tokyo Olympics during the pandemic – and all its associated restrictions – has exacerbated the extensive pressures of performance. Biles poignantly stated: “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”  

Examining this disconnect between mind and body, Biles has continued the crucial conversation started by other elite athletes who have spoken openly about their need to prioritise their mental health. Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of this year’s French open, all-rounder Ben Stokes is taking an indefinite break from cricket, and retired U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, the most successful Olympian in history, has candidly discussed his struggles with depression. Sadly, there has been extreme targeting amongst critics; seeing Biles and Osaka as two vocal leaders regarding anxiety and race, many did not let them off easily. Public scrutiny, unrelenting pressure and racism took their toll, and a much-needed media break was taken by both athletes respectively. 

“We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Recently, an article in the Herald Scotland bemoaned the “cotton wool culture which will suffocate sport”, opening that the Olympics has become “infected” with a “snowflake sensibility”. Criticism in this sense is both despicable and unjustified. Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings also revealed that he sought the help of a psychologist before Euro 2020 to stop outside influences affecting his performances. I’d like to see Tyrone Mings tower over the spineless reporter at the Herald Scotland, pointing out every minor mishap in his writing, and then he may understand the harsh reality of his scathing words. Mings was also criticised by Danny Mills on TalkSport, claiming: “If you’re going to come out and say it’s affecting your mental health every time somebody doubts you, then it’s damaging for people with real mental health problems.” This statement is, of course, ludicrous. An athlete being overwhelmed by their feelings or experiencing any form of mental insecurity must be addressed, whatever their diagnosis may be. Thus, the stigma around mental wellbeing in sport is unrelenting; this is far from a normal job, yet mental health priorities should be observed, nonetheless. 

In response to athletes exposing elite sport’s mental health strains, Time magazine has claimed that the Tokyo Olympics has “changed the conversation about athlete’s mental health”, citing Jessica Bartley, a psychologist and director of mental health services for the U.S. Olympics and Paralympic Committee. Bartley explained that her team would receive dozens of requests per day to support athletes’ mental health needs, mostly in the form of anonymous tips, which told of athletes battling everything from quarantine issues to intense fears that they would be unable to perform to the best of their ability. 

“…the stigma around mental wellbeing in sport is unrelenting.”

Safe spaces and access to appropriate clinical help must follow these bold statements, or there is a significant risk that we lose some of sports most promising athletes. 

Closer to home, scores of footballers have shared their personal stories of struggles with their mental health. The breadth of names, from World Cup winners to non-premier league midfielders, from staples of the early premier league years to those born after Euro 96’, from those with a whole career ahead of them, from both the men’s and women’s game, is proof, were it needed, that mental health illnesses are ever-present and indiscriminate. In response to countless claims, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) has a 24-hour wellbeing hotline and a wealth of resources, including swift access to a network of more than 200 counsellors.

There has been plenty of coverage citing depression and mental illness affecting those leaving the game, whether it be after a shining career or a decade in an academy. While athletes and footballers, in this case, have had their stories told and often been able to speak to the press about issues they are having, trying to name a manager who has publicly spoken about being affected is a harder task and the list abruptly becomes shorter and disengaged. The same must be said for non-playing staff, from physios to club doctors to nutritionists to coaches, and for the players’ families, who often pick up the pieces away from the pitch. How many of those are you able to name? Statistically, they exist. One in four people in the U.K. will suffer from a mental health problem each year. Where are their stories? 

On the very surface, athletes of any kind need private and personal support in order to thrive on the big stage. Sporting fans of the past and present must understand that taking yourself away from a damaging situation is more valuable than a piece of metal, a message that even those of us without Olympic aspirations would do well to heed. And, of course, it’s not only the athletes who suffer. A wealth of staff exist in the world of sport: nurturing, mentoring, and creating elite sportspeople who we all look up to greatly. Their names are disregarded in this conversation when, in fact, they’re vital. The conversation regarding mental health in sport is finally having its moment, but it is far from over.


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