The Olympics, mental health and the new normal
She’s 24 years old, a survivor of one of the most heinous abuses in US history, and the most decorated gymnast of her generation. If naysayers are to be believed, though, she’s also mentally weak.
But let’s back up for a moment before we get to the woman in question.
So, it’s over. After a prolonged 5 year wait, the Tokyo Olympics of 2020 (taking place in 2021) has come to an end, though we do still have the Paralympics to look forward to, starting next week.
Despite the hellish preparation difficulties thrust upon athletes and organisers alike by the last 18 months, the Olympics in Tokyo, generally speaking, went off without a hitch. The most iconic sporting event the world over was a joyous spectacle, showcasing mind-boggling feats of athletic achievement, team cohesion and competitive spirt. All taking place under an intense spotlight and understanding that the whole world was watching.
In Tokyo, it was Simone Biles who found herself in that spotlight just when she most wished to be out of it. The young gymnastic starlet—not just considered, but accepted as the best in the world, and maybe the best ever—stepped down from the all-round gymnastics final, citing the preservation of her mental health as the reason why.
This drew widespread media coverage, with opinions on the matter predictably polarised—we’ve reached the point now where the fact we’re polarised seems about the only thing we can agree upon. Many were sympathetic, including and most especially current and former professional athletes, while others, especially the usual suspects of blowhard media types, felt it was important to publicly decry a young woman just as she confessed that she was struggling the most. But let’s be clear, this issue does not begin or end with Simone Biles.
Jessica Bartley, a psychologist and the director of mental health services for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, says her team received about 10 requests a day during the Games to support athletes’ mental health needs. Ten a day. And that’s one nation’s athletes, at one Games. Not even the tip of the iceberg.
Make no mistake, the struggles are real and ubiquitous.
But again, this story only becomes more macro the deeper you delve. Earlier this year we saw four time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka pull out of the French Open due to mental health struggles, perpetuated by pandemic-induced sporting bubbles, intense media scrutiny that she was fined for trying to avoid, and the difficult-to-fathom pressures of playing sport at an elite level.
Post-Simone Biles, England cricket’s talismanic all-rounder Ben Stokes announced that he would be taking an indefinite break from the game to prioritise his mental well-being. This, again, was fuelled by the intense pressure at the top of the game, the Covid bubble and gleefully crude, sometimes even sadistic media coverage he and his family have received over the years, alongside the recent loss of a loved one.
Anyone who knows anything about the athletes mentioned above knows that their mental resilience is not just good, but near enough unrivalled. Simone Biles is the best gymnast in the world, Naomi Osaka the world no. 2 tennis player, Ben Stokes the best all-rounder. You don’t get to that level within elite sport without possessing a mental toughness most of us can’t even compute.
So, the options we’re faced with are as follows. Either:
1) Some of the most determined, disciplined, talented and resilient athletes the world over have been exposed as nothing more than fraudulent, mentally fragile dropouts, rightfully being teed up for our derision.
2) Maybe, just maybe, there’s something more serious going on here.
It may be by virtue of the fact we tend to only see them on screen, the fact we know they’re blessed with talent and healthy bank accounts and therefore somehow less worthy of our empathy, or some other as-yet unconsidered additional option, but whatever the reason may be, what’s clear is that we don’t see sports stars as human. [PW4] People. Like you and me. Equally likely to be scared, angry, lonely or distressed from time to time and equally deserving of the right to be.
There are various plausible reasons for this being the year sports stars opened up with regards to their mental health. Athletes at the top level need to be operating at an astounding level of intensity just to compete. They are trained for high-pressure environments, often hovering at a controlled boiling point so that they can unleash the best of themselves at any given moment.
But precariously balancing at a constant boiling point can prove dangerous once the lid is lifted by, say, a global pandemic. All of a sudden that precious balance is swiftly offset.
Pair this with the (slow-moving) trend of society waking up to the importance of mental health discussions, accelerated by the pandemic’s devastating, isolation-laden impact, as well as general generational divides when it comes to the subject—Gen Z seemingly unplagued by the senseless stiff upper lip stoicism of those that came before—and it’s easy to see why this topic has finally found its relevance.
They say it’s lonely at the top of elite sport, often working strange hours, traveling endlessly, and undertaking tasks only a very small collective of peers can relate to. Add to that Covid bubbles that kept many sporting professionals away from their families for months at a time and, again, the reasons for this emerging trend are clear to see. Pressure combined with global circumstances led to a breaking point.
But that doesn’t apply solely to sport. (And those of you wondering why a design agency was writing about the crossover of professional sport and mental health struggles may get your answer now).
Pressure exists in all walks of life, for all people, for all sorts of reasons. It is not limited to high-level sporting environments. It exists in workplaces, in home-life, internally, externally, societally, politically, and anywhere you can think of—it is a truly omnipresent phenomenon.
And pressure is relative. We define it in relation to our own lived experiences.
Yes, Ben Stokes had to bat out a Super Over to win the World Cup Final. Yes, Naomi Osaka had to hold her nerve to win four Grand Slam titles. And, without a doubt,Simone Biles has had to pull out her A-game to earn her 7 Olympic and 25 World Championship medals. But pressure can also be getting X piece of work to your boss on time; it can be nailing that presentation; getting your partner’s birthday right; balancing a thriving professional life with being there for your kids. The list could go on and on ad infinitum.
The truth is most of us have our own precarious boiling point we live our lives around. Though we may not deal with the media scrutiny or fiscal ramifications of the sporting elite, our balance can be just as easily offset. And the pandemic exposed just how many people had been operating as trapeze artists without nets.
For all the hideousness Covid brought with it, its one redeeming feature may be that it fostered more open conversation on a subject bafflingly cast into the category of taboo for far too long. Even old stigmatisers were forced to contend with the reality that this was a topic not limited to the “fragile”; it’s everywhere and can affect anyone.
That is another of the brilliant and hopefully long-lasting effects of stars like Biles, Osaka, Stokes and others speaking out about mental health. We know these people are strong, so can (finally) cast the “fragile” fallacy into the fire.
There was an oddly accepted belief for a long time that vulnerability and weakness were mirror images of one another, two sides of the same coin. Thankfully we’re understanding now that they’re entirely different currencies and that it takes strength to be openly vulnerable, to speak out, or in the case of these brave athletes, to step down when the whole world is watching.
Now that life is returning to a semblance of the old normality, it will be interesting to see which of the doors the pandemic blew open will be left ajar—and which doors certain segments of society race to ram shut like they were the lid of Pandora’s Box. The hope must be that the door of de-stigmatisation is open for good, and that this is only the beginning.
The hope, too, must be that businesses understand the importance of adjusting to a post-Covid world, and that while they embrace flexi-working schedules and reduction of business travel as part of the much-discussed ‘new normal’, they also remember to operate with the increased openness and understanding on this subject that the pandemic, sports stars and societal shifts have seen brought about.
Six of our team here at Point 6 are trained mental health first aiders. We know the importance of what we’re dealing with, and we do everything in our power to create an environment that allows people to firstly feel happy and healthy in their work lives, but more importantly to feel free to talk to us if ever they’re not. And to know that they’ll be met with empathy, not judgement, if and when they choose to do so.
When it comes to speaking frankly about mental health, we could all learn a thing or two from the sports stars who are currently taking a stand. So when we say you should be like Simone Biles, we don’t mean you have to do stuff like this. Because that looks kind of hard.
Hopefully, speaking openly and honestly comes a little easier.