2020 Tokyo Olympics: Simone Biles, the Drive to win and Mental Health — Random Thoughts
The World is witnessing the remarkable feats at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics amidst the raging COVID -19 “Delta” variant and the most vivid disruption of mental health. This is amplified by the dramatic withdrawal of its ‘most celebrated star’ gymnast, Simone Biles from the competition . The opening ceremony with dazzling digital technology fully demonstrated the awe-inspiring ingenuity of the human spirit to deliver excellence in the face of adversity. So too are the performances of athletes across all 34 disciplines, so far, breaking records, delivering breath-taking performances or just competing. Yet these games are haunted by the growing importance of mental health in sport.
GOFAD in several of its blogs has pointed out how the past 18 months of lockdowns and other constraints caused by the coronavirus have contributed to the growing need to pay attention to the pervasiveness of mental health issues. In the USA for example, approximately 46.6 million or 1 in 5 adults are living with a mental health condition at some point in their lives. What however is of specific concern is a recognition that playing sports does not make athletes immune to mental health challenges. The pressures to perform in the game, as well as coping with the rest of their public lives, can be incredibly challenging for their mental health.
In recent years, sports psychology researchers have exhibited an almost explosive growth in interest in the investigation of mental health among elite athletes. In a scoping review, Kuettel and Larsen (2020) found that 81% of mental health studies focusing on athletes between 2013 and 2018 highlighted concerns about the high prevalence of mental health issues among elite athletes and that stigma in the elite sports culture that tend to decrease help-seeking behaviors and lead sports organizations to depreciate mental health issues as unwelcome. The authors noted that a majority of these studies focused on the assessment of risk factors or various psychological health symptoms possibly related to common mental wellbeing. See link to Risk and protective factors for mental health in elite athletes: a scoping review: International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology: Vol 13, No 1
There is so much to be explored. As a result, GOFAD combed reports of mental issues across a range of sporting activities and provides a sample:
Issues in Cricket and Soccer
In Cricket, Brian Lara former captain of the West Indies, holder of the record for the highest score in a test innings (400 not out ) and highest score in first class cricket (501 not out) expressed experiencing a feeling of despair due to pressures to achieve world records. Also, the so-called mental toughness that has long been a part of cricket in Australia, where sledging - often nasty banter between players - a fundamental part of the game, has been changing over the last decade. Cricket Australia has had a full-time sports psychologist working with national teams. Then there has been “life in the bubble “ during the COVID-19 era that has been recognized as affecting players of all nationalities. Most country teams now include sports psychologists as part of their respective squads. Leading English fast bowler Christopher Broad views, shared by many, is that performing in an empty stadium is a challenging task that tests the mental strength of the athletes who have to be in the right frame of mind.
International soccer is another arena that has introduced variation into the equation such as harassment and racial abuse as compounding factors. After England’s lost in the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship to Italy earlier this month, online abuse was targeted at three Black players, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. This incident reveals a larger societal problem of racism in sports. In a poignant comment found in an Instagram post, by Sir Lewis Hamilton, the influential Black sporting figure and Formula 1's seven-time world champion voiced his condemnation of the attack and the underlying issues faced by minorities in sport: "We must work towards a society that doesn't require Black players to prove their value or place in society only through victory.”
Michael Holding, one of the West Indies cricket outstanding fast bowlers has raised the issue in the wider context of institutionalized racism in his recent book ‘Why We Kneel, How We Rise'. While I have not yet read it, I learned of its content during Holding's interview on BBC’s Hard Talk on July 26, 2021. Holding supports the global Black Lives Movement (BLM) of which he advocates that 'taking a knee' by sportspersons is an enlightened endeavor. His, is the provocative view that the persistence of racism in sport is a product of the wider society and is largely due to the fact that black history is airbrushed. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3ct1n5z
Perspectives for Remedial Policies
A new World Economic Forum report on digital safety outlines the Human rights dimensions for addressing such instances of online harassment and racism in sport. It argues that unabridged speech without regard to harm caused can actually contribute to suppressed mental health issues that could ultimately flair into serious outcomes particularly for vulnerable groups. The policy being advocated is that athletes should not feel pressured into masking the problem by what is referred to as the “gladiator barrier”. This remains the primary hindrance to seeking treatment. There is also the idea that seeking help for mental health problems makes the athlete appear ‘weak’ which needs to be addressed from both a general media perspective and from the perspective of the athlete.
Michael Phelps as an NBC announcer at the Tokyo games is of great value and has helped viewers to comprehend the challenges of mental health generally and the specific challenges faced by Simone Biles. Phelps is arguably the greatest Olympian of all time. His 28 medals spanning five Games is unrivaled, and no other Olympic athlete comes close to his 23 gold medals. He has been open about his mental health challenges, including depression and suicidal thoughts, before. To cope, Phelps disclosed that his exercise routine is a way of focusing on what he can control. "It's just taking a little step forward, taking a deep breath from time to time."
The International Olympic Committee to its credit is making mental health services available in Tokyo. It has engaged mental health officers to assist athletes and coaches and established a 24/7 help line for them. In addition, there are psychiatrists and psychologists on call at the Olympic Village. This is an example of a good practice for adoption by other global games such Soccer World Cup and International Cricket Council competitions.
Using wider Lenses: Beyond Sports
While we have so far been concerned with sports and in particularly elite athletes, the Lancet Commission 2020 Report on Stigma and Discrimination in Mental Health provides a reality check. It is a call to reframe mental health in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It maps opportunities for broadening the global mental health agenda to include entire populations. It also highlights implementing a population approach to this issue that requires a coordinated multi-sectoral approach. This includes four pillars which recognize mental health as: (a) a global good; (b) part of a continuum of mild, time limited distress to chronic, progressive and severely disabling conditions; (c) a product of social and environmental conditions, especially in early years; and (d) a fundamental human right.
A population approach to mental health focuses attention on the range of social and economic factors that influence mental health. A particularly effective way of addressing the social determinants is to invest in mental health and well-being from childhood .
Simone Biles and the Tokyo Moment
Simone Biles drive to win was dashed. But ironically she emerged as the star of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She placed in perspective an indescribable feature of knowing what's best for her wellbeing; and of establishing a template of what's best for the team and for country. In so doing as idol and leader of the Fighting Four she demonstrated unadulterated confidence in the abilities of her team mates. She gave them the opportunity to shine, to step up to the plate and deliver. And deliver they did. At the time of writing, the USA gymnastics women's team has won a silver medal and Suni Lee , its youngest member has won gold in the individual event inspired by a gentle giant sidelined by Twisties" a mental block which puts gymnasts at serious risk. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2021/jul/28/simone-biles-twisties-the-mental-block-which-puts-gymnasts-at-serious-risk Hers is a demonstration of prevention, but also of profound leadership and good sense. As a result, Mental Health has triumphed and for me the Tokyo Moment belongs to this outstanding athlete and phenomenal person Simone Biles.
Edward and Auriol Greene Directors, GOFAD.