The stigma surrounding the mental health of athletes needs to end


The folder given to me by my own sports physiologist, who has helped me immensely with the mental aspect of my sport.

When elite gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the sports world was sent into an uproar. 

After competing in her first event, vault, with an obvious slip-up and an unusually low score, Biles stepped off the arena to have a conversation with her coach. She stepped back into the arena during the rotation to the next event, in full warm-ups, with the obvious intention of not continuing the competition.

Every athlete needs to be able to make their own decisions as to what is most healthy and safe for themselves without backlash and outside opinions. 

After the competition was completed, with the US Gymnastics Team finishing in second, Biles discussed what happened during the competition. 

She said that the stress of competing at the Olympics had affected her in a way she had never experienced, and she wasn’t at all used to or comfortable with it. She was shaking before the meet, during warm-up, and even while competing. 

The reason Biles did not finish the competition was that she knew what was best for her health and safety. 

While some people understood that and praised her for putting her mental health first, others weren’t so understanding. Many people seemed to think that Biles was selfish and acted as a bad teammate by not completing the meet. 

Some people claim that it was her fault team USA didn’t win gold this year, and while that may very well be true, blaming her for being in tune with what is safest and most healthy for her body and mind, and then acting on those instincts, is not the right thing to do. 

Every athlete needs to be able to make their own decisions as to what is most healthy and safe for themselves without backlash and outside opinions. 

Unfortunately, this incident with Simone Biles is not the only time the mental health of athletes has been overlooked because fans want to see their favorite players and teams in action. 

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, about 35% of all professional and elite athletes suffer from eating disorders, burnout, depression, or anxiety. That percentage means that more than one out of every three professional or elite athletes is dealing with severe mental disorders, and most of them are overlooked due to the stigma surrounding them. 

High school, college, professional, and elite athletes alike have been told for decades that their mental health is far from the most important aspect of the sport. 

There are a variety of factors that could cause and are causing mental health issues in athletes of all ages. One of the many of these is overtraining, which almost always leads to burnout, both mentally and physically.

Other major contributors are physical injuries. Not being able to train in a sport due to an injury sustained during the sport or otherwise causes heightened stress and anxiety levels in athletes. 

Other factors are mental blocks, pressure to perform, and even social media scrutiny. There are, of course, other things that play a role in athletes’ mental health, and unfortunately, professional and elite athletes are not the only ones susceptible to them. 

Also according to the American College of Sports Medicine, 30% of women and 25% of men who are student-athletes report mental health issues, usually anxiety, caused by their sport. 

What is possibly the worst part about the stigma around athletes’ mental health problems is that so many people who could and should be getting help for it don’t. Only 10% of the student-athletes who suffer from mental health conditions seek out help from a mental health professional.

The mental health of athletes of all levels is a serious problem. It is not one that can be passed over and shoved off to the side because sports fans want to watch their favorite athletes play.  

There needs to be no stigma around the topic at all so that athletes can feel comfortable seeking out help when they need it, and grow to their highest potential.