“Whenever you’re in a highly stressful situation, you get nervous,” she told reporters at the time. “I have to focus on my mental health and not put my mental health and well-being at risk.”
Athletes are often rewarded for giving everything to their sport, regardless of the impact on mental health. Coach requires it; fans requested it.
But in recent years, a change is happening. In a new episode of “United Shades of America,” which airs Sunday on CNN, host W. Kamau Bell digs into the intense pressures faced by some of the country’s beloved athletes – and the real mental health cost of winning.
Athletes are seen as entertainers rather than people
Biles’ withdrawal is one of the most famous cases of an athlete speaking out about their mental health, but she’s not the only one to do so.
But that message doesn’t always exist in the past. Especially when considering how much money athletes make, there can be a tendency to pressure sports stars to perform no matter the price.
Renée Graham, a journalist and editor for the Boston Globe, told Bell: “(There is) the idea that your health is inappropriate. “Your job is to be a showhorse and go out there and entertain people, and you make a lot of money doing that. That ugliness is inseparable from professional sports. “
Strug, the gymnast who broke her ankle at the 1996 Olympics, told her coach – Bela Karolyi – that she wasn’t sure she could do the stunt because of her injury. me. But Karolyi said she could, in a move that at the time was considered good coaching, Bell said.
Racism can increase mental health pressures
For athletes of color, racism can make mental health problems even worse because they also have to deal with all the typical challenges of their profession.
“Too many times we think about things like ‘this is this’,” said Kristi Oshiro, an assistant professor at Belmont University who has studied racism and its impact on athletes. racism’ and ‘this is mental health’. “But in reality, it’s really complicated and they inform each other.”
Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, faced racist abuse from tennis fans in 2001, during a final against Kim Clijsters at Indian Wells. Although Williams, just 19 at the time, won the match, she refused to play the tournament again until 2015.
The impact of the intersection of racism and mental health, Oshiro says, exists at every level of play. However, with professional athletes, the tension can be more intense.
“For professional athletes, it’s a little bit different and different because they are expected to compete and consistently perform at this extremely elite level of competition, all open or vulnerable to criticism from people around the world,” she said.
And in the age of the internet, that criticism can come from anywhere – in person and online.
Grant Williams is an NBA player for the Boston Celtics. He pays attention to all the comments he receives from fans, he told Bell, especially if they are racist.
“It’s hard not to notice it,” Williams said.
With more and more athletes speaking out about the mental health pressures of their sport, their stories are more diverse. From Biles and Osaka to the NBA’s Kevin Love and former college volleyball player Victoria Garrick – athletes of all ages, races and sports have been open about their mental health struggles. them, highlighting the ways in which these problems can manifest.
Oshiro himself is a former college athlete who played softball at East Carolina University. In the last 10 years alone, she says, have conversations about mental health progressed for the better.
“When I was playing in college, we lacked not only the resources involved, but also the awareness and the language to describe the mental health struggles or even the racism that we faced. we suffered at the time,” she said. “It’s like you know you’re going through some thing, but you don’t know it could be depression or anxiety.”
To make a lasting change around athletes’ mental health perceptions, Oshiro says, everyone involved should rethink the way they think and talk about athletes – from fans to athletes. related parties. Even organizations can do a better job of clearly not tolerating the racism often imposed on athletes of color.
But that’s not all that can be done. Access to mental health resources is also important, says Oshiro.
“When you consider how much is available to an athlete’s physical health – training facilities, gyms, etc – there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure it’s good for mental health as well. , ” she speaks.
And if we can’t take care of both their physical and mental health, as Bell noted in Sunday’s episode, then we probably don’t deserve to be athletes at all.