Olympians are putting their mental health first: here's why everyone else should too

Simone Biles made headlines around the world after withdrawing from the team and all-around women's competition, citing concerns to her mental health

US gymnast Simone Biles made headlines when she withdrew from the team and all-around women's gymnastics competition, citing concerns to her mental health. AFP
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When US gymnast Simone Biles decided to pull out of the team and all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics, fans across the world were stunned to learn it was related to issues surrounding her mental health.

It was a move tennis star Naomi Osaka also made a couple of months earlier when she withdrew from the French Open, citing similar concerns.

Since then, more athletes have stepped forward to say they, too, want to focus on their mental health, whether it's by taking themselves off social media or stepping away from their sport altogether.

Biles and Osaka are elite athletes, so the importance of what they've done cannot be underplayed. They have cast the spotlight on mental health, and putting yourself first, something relatively unheard of in the demanding world of competitive sports.

Sure, most people don’t have to worry about tumbling on a 10-centimetre-wide piece of wood or taking to the courts for hours to practise their backspin, but that’s the thing about mental health – it affects everyone. Not everyone is a world champion athlete, but the pressure to be successful in life applies to most of us.

So if a top-tier athlete can admit they need to take a step back from one of the world’s biggest sporting events, which they’ve likely trained their entire life for, to prioritise themselves and their mental health, what should this tell the rest of us?

Too often, it seems we’re focused on “the grind” – getting caught up in pushing ourselves in our daily lives to the point where we are left feeling exhausted and worn down, only to repeat the process all over again the next day. It's almost as though we wear burnout as a badge of honour and, in the long-term, this can be detrimental physically, emotionally and, yes, mentally.

But seeing people such as Biles and Osaka open up about their struggles should serve as a reminder that we're not alone. It's OK to use your annual leave, it's OK to take a lunch break, it's OK to use your sick days.

After all, the coronavirus pandemic has spared no one, whether you're an Olympian in training or someone working a 9-to-5 office job. Those feelings of loneliness or isolation, or fear for the future, have plagued people all the same.

That path towards opening up and admitting we feel something is wrong can be a difficult one, though. There is still a long way to go in banishing stigma surrounding mental health, but Biles and Osaka and others are at least helping to get that conversation started.

The Tokyo Olympics has been a platform for so many inspiring moments so far – even the ones that didn't happen. Let's hope this means mental health, not just in sports, will finally be taken more seriously.

Updated: August 02, 2021, 2:05 PM