When you hear the names Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Michael Phelps, your first thought probably has to do with their athletic talent and achievements. They are, after all, some of the most celebrated athletes of all time, past and present. But shortly after that thought, words like “mental health advocates” probably float across your mind – and this is a newer, very special phenomenon.
Now, I’m not saying that famous athletes haven’t spoken up about mental health in the past, but never has the topic been thrust into center stage so openly and passionately. Today, celebrated athletes are putting their foot down at some of the biggest competitions in the world DESPITE what others may think or potential blowback! It’s no longer a retrospective conversation (once an athlete’s career is over). It’s a conversation that’s happening in real-time. And in my eyes, there is no better way to say “mental health matters” than in the present:
So why am I bringing this to your attention?
Well, first of all, these athletes remind us just how connected the mental is with the physical. Take for example Simone Biles in the recent Tokyo Olympics. She said she suffered from the “twisties” or losing herself in the air during her vault, right before deciding to pull out of most events.
In the face of so much pressure and stress, she could have gone through an “amygdala hijack”, not allowing her brain to think clearly, increasing tension in her body, and causing dizziness amongst other things. Additionally, she was grieving a recent death in the family, and still grappling with the psychological trauma from having been sexually abused by former gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. That alone could dismantle anyone’s mental health and translate into physical conditions or accidents.
But perhaps more importantly, the behavior of such athletes reminds us that we all need to put our mental health first. And if elite athletes (who are emotional humans, not superheroes) can do so when the entire world is watching, you can too. You see, no matter what situation you find yourself in life, and no matter how hard it seems to take that first step to prioritize your mental health, you CAN take it, and more importantly, you SHOULD.
Lastly, although the newsworthy story is about what these athletes have chosen to opt OUT of 1% of the time, the more interesting story is about all the things they’ve chosen to opt INTO 99% of the time. Because elite athletes have phenomenal psychological and physical habits and routines (like breathing and visualization skills). And it’s these practices, along with their physique and talent, that make them the best in the world.
At the end of the day, these athletes are setting an example for what all around well-being should look like. Just because they are physically strong, does not mean they have to pretend to be mentally strong. Mental health is about BALANCE, it’s about knowing when you personally need to slow down, or speed up. And it’s about opening up to the fact that you’re human, and accepting yourself – flaws and all!