How Simone Biles’ choice to walk away from Olympic team, all-around competitions puts spotlight on mental health in sports

National and World

FRANKLIN TWP., Ind. — Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles shocked fans as she pulled out of the team and all-around competitions this week. She did so citing mental health reasons. Now, her move is putting a spotlight on mental health in athletics.

“I say put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and succeed,” said Biles at a press conference.

Sports psychologists say all too often the public assumes all athletes must be mentally tough. At times, the pressure to perform can deter from their ability to perform. In her press conference, Biles said she did not want to put her team at risk.

The Olympic team trained in Indiana at the Gymnastics Company in Franklin Township. Owner Kim Dykes says the mental health aspect plays a crucial role in gymnastics. It’s a sport where the line between injury and success can be a mere inch.

“Even if they have the physical ability, if their mind isn’t in it, it’s not going to be a good outcome in the end,” said Dykes.

She trains athletes at her gym from an early age. She believes younger athletes may have an easier time dealing with mental health stress than a 24-year-old adult like Biles who has so much more to focus on in life.

“As a younger athlete, they too don’t think as much. They think of the gymnastics and the outcome, or the podium, or not, as opposed to thinking if I am off on this how is that going to affect me the rest of my life,” saif Dykes.

Her daughter Austyn just entered her freshman year of high school. This year she became a state champion and Gymnast of the Year. Watching Biles step away was a bit of a surprise.

“Left me speechless for sure. Nothing I would have ever really considered in the back of my mind,” said Austyn Dykes, “That might have been the best decision for her mentally and physically. Gymnastics is so incredibly precise that one little mistake can cost you mentally and physically.”

Some sports psychologists believe Biles’ decision helps fans to empathize with her on a human level, and may bring more fans to root for her.

“What we pride our belief in about the best athletes is that they’re mentally tough. They thrive in the fourth quarter, they thrive on that last drive, and they’re able to rise to those occasions, and so anybody ever admitting that they questioned themselves, or they want to withdraw from something just seems like a complete antithesis of what we think being a mentally strong athlete is,” explained IU psychology professor Edward Hirt.

“I think what they’re trying to say is that we’re people too, and this is part of it, and everyone has those doubts and challenges and etc. It’s something that we have maybe not really wanted to believe or think about until this point.”

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