Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have become household names for being the best of their kind. They are champions of their respective sports. Osaka shocked the world when she pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon, citing mental health struggles. Biles, expected to continue her reign of a fully gold sweep at Tokyo this year, also withdrew from competition to preserve her mental health.
Osaka is only 23 years old. Biles is 24. Their list of accolades includes four Grand Slam titles for Osaka and 25 world championship medals for Biles. To hold the titles at such a young age comes with an enormous amount of attention, and eventually, pressure. Being named some of the best athletes in the world, regardless of sport or gender, is an additional large onus. The pressure to be great falls extra hard on these women, and lately, it’s been getting to them.
We often forget that our mind is an active component of our body, and should be treated as such. Even more often, we as spectators hold these athletes to an incredibly high standard, and we can sometimes contribute to the stigma that is attached to taking time off for mental health reasons.
One of the biggest differences between men and women who play sports is the realism that factors into the individuals’ motivation to play. Men often grow up with the hopes to be a professional, and typically believe that they have the skills to get there eventually. Women, however, have repeatedly been reported to have less confidence in themselves and their abilities to go pro. This contributes to high dropout rates around high school and college in women. The pressure to be great is felt at a much earlier age, and the self-scrutiny it takes to make it to the top often tears them down.
As we encourage more women and girls to participate in sports and believe in themselves, we must also believe in them and their abilities. This can manifest in many different ways — in the support of our children, watching women play sports on TV, and advocating for and providing resources to the women who are still not receiving equality in the sports world.
Becca Myers is a 3-time gold medalist in swimming. She has competed in three Paralympic Games for the US and had been left with no choice but to withdraw from the Tokyo Games. In her public statement, she cited the reasoning behind her decision to withdraw was because of the lack of support services for her disability and lack of mental health services.
Even in the wake of a mental health crisis during the COVID-19 Pandemic, adequate counselors are still staunchly lacking at the Olympic Games. For the athletes participating, this may mean the inability to compete, or to compete at their best performance.
For many, exercise and athletics are an outlet. Working hard, forming a routine, playing with a team, all contribute to positive mental health. Anxiety and depression diagnoses are on the rise, and one of the only tools we have as a community is awareness and acknowledgement of the challenges at hand. When mental health is neglected, it festers.
Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and Becca Myers have done the seemingly impossible this year. By withdrawing from some of their biggest stages, we as fans and as players ourselves are led to reconcile where we stand with our mental health conversation. Younger generations are witnessing these leaders take a stand when things are not right, whether it is with their mind, their body, or their support systems.