female athlete mental health expert weighs in on Simone Biles
While the world watched, the greatest gymnast of our lifetime, Simone Biles, pulled herself out of the Olympic Games to protect and prioritize her mental health. The move follows in the footsteps of a similar position taken by tennis player Naomi Osaka, who earlier this year, withdrew from multiple tennis tournaments in order to preserve her mental health. Both athletes have been commended for putting their mental health first and for reminding us that while they’re Olympic athletes, they’re also human.
We sat down with Linh-Han Ikehara, behavioral health specialist with The Center for the Female Athlete, to talk about the pressure on competitive athletes and how Naomi and Simone are changing the game.
What unique behavioral health issues do competitive athletes have compared to their peers?
Competitive athletes face pressures from their own expectations to perform flawlessly, but also externally to maintain athletic and social standards. The time and energy required to perform at a high-level for extended periods of time can be emotionally exhausting as it leaves little time for self-care and recovery, which is critical to preventing injury. Athletes contend with the challenge of balancing and maintaining their emotional well-being while training and competing.
How can competitive athletes cope with the pressure that’s put on them?
While competitive athletes may feel that much of their schedule is taken up by their sport, it is crucial they carve out intentional time for routine self-care. This can be as simple as scheduling 5-10 minutes every day to reflect using a journal or engage in a mindfulness exercise. Research has shown that mindfulness can improve an athlete’s immediate outlook on their day, but also bring about awareness of how they are feeling emotionally and physically.
What can an athlete do if they feel like the pressure on them is becoming too much?
Athletes are just as human as everyone else and require regular maintenance and recovery to pursue their goals long-term. Athletes that are emotionally invested in themselves will see strength in making challenging decisions for their health, even if it is unpopular. It is important for athletes to be aware of what their body and mind needs to sustain themselves and sometimes that may mean pausing to seek support or even professional help.
What does it mean for young athletes when they see athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka prioritize their mental health?
Voices like Simone and Naomi have been pivotal in empowering young athletes to trust in themselves and to recognize and prioritize their emotional well-being.