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In the continued effort to bring mental health awareness into the consciousness of society, something occasionally happens to catapult it to the forefront of our collective conversations. At the Olympic Games in Tokyo, a movement is happening that carries with it potentially far reaching and lasting impacts as it pertains to how we as a society perceive mental health and well-being. When Simone Biles withdrew from gymnastics competition and Naomi Osaka took to the tennis court on the heels of withdrawing from the French Open, both athletes noted their mental health struggles.
There has been no shortage of reactions to both women, from intensely personal swells of support to calls for shame and retribution. In the ongoing debate, one common refrain is that neither could handle the pressure and quit the competition, on herself, teammates and her country. This argument, however, leaves out important understandings of mental health.
Both Biles and Osaka have clearly demonstrated their ability to handle immense amounts of pressure while performing successfully at the highest levels of competition. If Biles was physically injured and unable to participate in the competition, many may have been disappointed, but likely would have reacted primarily with empathy. Biles likely would have been praised for remaining in Tokyo to cheer along her teammates while dealing with the injury. Both athletes’ mental health challenges, just like a potential injury, were not chosen and both respected themselves enough to care for their minds and bodies alike.
Even with this understanding, there exists underlying systemic and cultural issues when it comes to how we perceive and interact with sports and athletes. While life consists of much more than sports, athletes do have the ability to provide priceless life lessons like how to practice, be coached, be part of a team, develop resiliency, handle adversity, win and lose graciously and more. Sports also can bring people together, provide important connections and inspire hope.
On the other hand, consider a mother yelling at her son as he strikes out during his baseball game, an adult man with a short temper toward his family after his favorite team’s loss, or even a college football player facing little to no consequence after being charged with sexual assault.
The psychology behind these scenarios would be lengthy to explore, but often these situations occur as a result of an unhealthy relationship with sports and our culture’s reverence and devotion toward athletes. Sure, at a professional level sports are an entertainment business, and that means fans are paying the salaries of the athletes. But aren’t employees in all industries at some basic level in the business of serving others? The glaring difference is in how those others interact with, relate and react to the employees.
In this light, the mental health issues surrounding sports lie not only with the athletes that face both the usual mental and physical challenges of their sport and the exorbitant amounts of pressure from the Little League field to the Olympic arena, but also with the legions of fans that tie some piece of their lives to the successes and failures of athletes and teams.
While there is much left to be explored in how we can address specific issues surrounding sports at a systemic and cultural level, it is important to acknowledge the positive and negative impacts they can have on mental health for all involved. Whether you are an athlete, a fan or a casual spectator, I invite you to seek compassion and understanding for athletes at all levels, while being open to reframing our individual relationship with sports.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.