Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Mental Health in Sports

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have made news headlines this year for spearheading conversation about the importance of mental health for female athletes. A few months ago, Japanese tennis player Osaka decided to withdraw from a press conference and then the French Open for mental health purposes. In the last week of July, at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, American gymnast Biles decided not to compete in the women’s team final, where her team ultimately took the silver medal. She also cited mental health purposes. Although there were mixed reactions from people about their decisions, one thing is for sure – they are inspiring change around mental health.

Naomi Osaka returns to tennis, world stage at Tokyo Olympics - Sports  Illustrated
Naomi Osaka in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (Credit: Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated)

As two of the greatest athletes of their time in their respective sport, both Biles and Osaka bear immense pressure to consistently perform well. If they fall short, they may be criticized and gain negative press for underperforming. However, what people may not realize is that when an athlete’s mental health suffers, it will affect their performance anyway. The pressure negatively affects mental health and causes them to worry about their performance, potentially leading them to fumble in their sport. This refers to performance anxiety and is certainly not limited to sports – people feel this all the time, from work to exams to performances. To perform their best, someone’s physical health and mental health should be in tip-top condition, including athletes. Not to mention that when an athlete has an injury, it might bring about deteriorating mental health as they worry about how their injury could affect their progress and performance. The looming threat of failure is another reason for deteriorating mental health. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic situation only exacerbates mental health issues.

Athletes are bound to encounter mental health issues. They train for hours everyday and dedicate a lot of effort to their sport, sometimes while they juggle studies or a career. It is certainly not surprising that they may struggle at times, considering how much pressure is on them from their loved ones, sponsors and fans. When they play, especially at such huge events like the Olympics and world tournaments, there are millions of people watching them and judging how they play the sport. At high-pressure events, mental health as a reason for underperformance is often swept under the rug. Athletes are expected to appear physically and mentally fit at all times, but they are humans, just like us. They are expected and pressured to persevere through any ailments. Because we often see them in their glory, we may forget this important fact. Currently, there is limited support for athletes’ mental health, as well as resources to help them out. Fortunately, in recent years, as more people have started discussing mental health, athletes are starting to open up about their struggles.

Osaka initially received backlash from the public when she initially pulled out of the French Open as people thought she was not taking her job seriously, especially from tennis officials and the media. Nevertheless, there was also support and praise from people, who said she was brave to prioritize her mental health in the midst of the backlash. She took a risky decision for the sake of her wellbeing. When Biles pulled out of the Olympic event, she stated that she did not want to “jeapordize [her] health and wellbeing.” On Instagram, she wrote that she “feels the weight of the world on [her] shoulders at times.” As the most decorated American gymnast, she has high expectations to meet as everyone is expecting her to perform well. Mental health experts have noted that their admission about their situations could help to normalize the conversation and have a positive impact on society.

Osaka and Biles are not the only athletes who have opted out of a competition due to mental health issues. In 1993, legendary basketball player Michael Jordan took a break from the NBA at the height of his career. The pressure of being the best at his game was taking a toll on his mental health, and as other bad scenarios started popping up in his personal life, he knew he could not handle the pressure to perform well, so he opted for a break instead. Although journalists were hounding him about his personal life, he did not receive the same backlash that Osaka and Biles did when they made similar decisions to withdraw from high-pressure competitions. This goes to show how female athletes have to bear a greater burden in their sport – there is already gender inequality in this field in terms of wages and even media coverage.

With discussion of mental health becoming more common and mainstream in the current climate, it is about time that athletes’ mental states are taken seriously. Instead of an outpour of backlash for athletes that decide to prioritize their mental health over their profession, they should be offered support instead. Hopefully, in the future, athletes like Osaka and Bile will not face the same kind of reaction. Athletes are only human, after all.


Feature Image: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images


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