PRESS BOX: Sports shouldn’t take priority over mental health

From left: VCU field hockey goalkeeper Sasha Elliott and junior track and field athlete Sebastian Evans, photo courtesy of VCU Athletics. Tennis player Naomi Osaka, photo by Peter Menzel. Gymnast Simone Biles, photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias

Kaitlyn Fulmore, Contributing Writer

The importance of mental health in athletes has been given public attention thanks to courageous professional athletes in the public eye. 

Tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles both regarded as top players in their sports — have recently prioritized their mental health over competition, earning both applause and criticism from the public. Applause is deserved for these athletes’ choices to prioritize mental health over sports, and more support from fans should be normalized.

At the Tokyo Olympics this summer, the USA Gymnastics released a statement on July 28, revealing that Biles was withdrawing from the Olympic individual all-around competition to focus on her mental health. Biles then proceeded to withdraw from uneven bars, vault and floor events.

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” Biles said in an interview with the Associated Press. “So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Osaka withdrew from the French Open on May 31, after being fined for not attending press events. Osaka later admitted in a Twitter statement that she suffers from depression and social anxiety. 

“Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” Osaka stated.

Twitter users were quick to call both of the women weak for putting their mental health before their sport, but the opposite is true. The ability to step down from a sport that is almost integrated with their identity shows bravery and they should be applauded.

Despite the controversy of both athletes pulling from competition, their actions have made many other athletes, including U.S. Olympic basketball players Damian Lillard and Britney Griner, come forward about their own mental health struggles.

The actions of Osaka and Biles help not only other professional athletes talk about their own mental health, but student-athletes as well. 

“This was brave to do, and needed,” said VCU Sports Psychologist Dana Blackmer, referring to Biles and Osaka’s decision to prioritize mental health. “The impact I hope that it has is helping destigmatize mental health treatment, and helping student-athletes see that mental wellness is something important.”

While strides have been made in promoting the conversation of mental health, obstacles with gender and race remain. Male athletes, specifically Black males, undergo societal pressure to not open up about their mental well-being. Blackmer said that energy needs to be placed into making help more accessible for marginalized groups.

“In the media and also just in general we are stereotyped to be angry and emotionless and that’s not really the case. I deal with it by actively wearing my heart on my sleeve,” junior hurdler Sebastian Evans stated in an email.

Evans said he has a great support system that allows him to talk about his mental health, despite the societal pressure on men to regulate their emotions.

“I think we’re all aware that just culturally, it’s more difficult for people of color to ask for help because of how they’ve been socialized,” Blackmer said. “There are a lot of potential obstacles and barriers.”

Although student-athletes deal with similar performance-related stress that professional athletes go through, they also differ from professional athletes with the sheer amount of roles they have to play in their lives. 

“The balance is really hard,” senior field hockey goalkeeper Sasha Elliott said. “Finding the right balance between having a lot of commitments you have to make for your team and your sport, as well as the commitments you have to class and your teacher, as well as wanting to have a social life outside of that.”

Elliott is a student ambassador for The Hidden Opponent, a student-athlete-led organization that helps spread mental health awareness. Elliott said she came across the organization on social media when she was struggling with her own mental health.

“I was like ‘this looks like a good outlet for me to find more resources, as well as to spread those resources among other people who are struggling,’” Elliott said. “Especially because once I figured out what I was struggling with, and why I was struggling with it, and I was like ‘I can’t be the only one who struggles with the same things as a student-athlete.’”

The mental health of athletes is just as important as any physical injury, even though anxiety or depression is not as tangible as a broken ankle or ACL tear. However, putting mental health over a sport an athlete loves will continue being an internal battle for many student-athletes.

“I live for the games that we play, that’s what I want to do,” Elliott said. “So it’s really hard to actually make that step to be like ‘I have to take care of my mental health, so I’m putting my mental health first.’ That’s a big step.”

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