The weight of the world's expectations is heavy to bear and, after U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of all competition Wednesday, conversations are once again swirling around the importance of mental health in professional sports.
“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” Biles told 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.”
She joins multiple other athletes, such as Japanese professional tennis player Naomi Osaka and U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who also recently discussed their mental health struggles in their sport.
Anat Geva, a clinical psychologist with HealthONE Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Denver, said there is a growing understanding for both spectators and competitors that the athlete is not a commercial product — they're people.
"I think it’s remarkable that someone of such high prestige as Simone Biles was able to say, 'I need the help,'" she said. "And I think for many people who are big fans, are admirers — she did such a huge service for them. And many other famous people, performers, artists, athletes who are able to do that, they show us that no matter how high you are in your game, how much on top of your game you are, we all still need help on occasion and there’s no shame in asking for it."
Biles has faced criticism this week from some who believe she cracked under pressure and should have competed anyway. She posted on Instagram on Monday saying, "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn, sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!"
Geva explained that while professional athletes, to an extent, must learn to push through challenges, they have the right to draw the line.
"This awareness, I think, is phenomenal in that people become aware that not only is there a red line, but that it is their right as a human being to enforce that red line," Geva said.
She explained athletes are learning that if they're not in the right mindset, they could make a mistake that would end up detrimental to a specific competition or even their whole career.
"As beautiful as a medal is for yourself, for your team, for your country — it is not worth that person’s life," Geva said.
We stand with Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and all those who take a stand to fight for and protect their mental health. I urge you all to also take care of yourselves and learn to recognize the signs of a person in crisis, and be there to help others in need. https://t.co/rCTtpu3w5Z— Michael B. Hancock (@MayorHancock) July 28, 2021
Earlier this year, former Denver Broncos running back Montee Ball shared his own mental health struggles with Denver7.
He was launched into stardom after graduating from high school and went on to become an all-conference standout at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Big Ten Player of the Year in 2011, the most outstanding running back in the nation in 2012, and was drafted by the Broncos in 2013.
But all the while, he hid a private struggle.
In college, he battled depression and anxiety, which he self-medicated with alcohol. As an 18-year-old, he didn't know how to reach out for help. He said he didn't even recognize that he was suffering amid the fast-paced rhythm of college for a student-athlete, especially one as popular as Ball. People looking at him and asking for his autograph distracted him from classwork.
2011 ended up being his best year on the field, but he said he suffered the most that year, and wishes he had performed poorly so he could have stepped back to address red flags.
His coach smelled alcohol on his breath at practices and would talk with him. But Ball continued to play well on the field, and he took that as an indication that he was fine.
Then, he started playing for the Broncos. Denver was "bigger, more extravagant," than Madison, he said, and "there's more accessibility to everything. More life pitfalls as well."
"Once I got to Colorado, I really, really started to spiral out because I was trying to manage my depression, but not knowing I was trying to manage it or even knowing that I had it," Ball said. "Going years and years battling depression and not really knowing it, it only started to build upon itself until it really started to tear me down mentally."
He was released from the Broncos and once he landed with the New England Patriots, he came to the realization that alcohol was ruining his NFL career. His depression turned to anger and in 2016, he was released from the Patriots following an arrest for felony domestic abuse.
"I was a smiley kid all throughout high school, college, and then I'd just turned around and committed a terrible act," he said. "So, jail helped me get to this point. But also, mainly therapy. My mother crying and forcing me into therapy was one of the biggest turning points."
At rock bottom, he had only one way back up. And he decided to make changes.
Today, he's a father and speaker. He has shared his story in podcasts and his book, titled "Nowhere to Run: Discovering Your True Self in the Midst of an Addiction."
"People are really starting to now open up and talk about mental health," he said. "Obviously, not everybody. But we're seeing on Twitter, we're seeing on social media, this push for mental health. That's a really, really great thing."
He said football wasn't the end of his journey, but instead has provided him with a platform to encourage others to seek help when they need it.
"I'm not perfect. I'm still not perfect. I'm never going to be perfect," he said. "I just wanted to grab a hold of my narrative, my story, and share the truths of it, with hope of providing hope for others to open up and create that same narrative."
Janelle Johnson, a licensed professional counselor, offered some ways to deal with feelings of intense stress. She opened the private practice Life Balance Counseling in Aurora in 2011.
She explained that when you start to feel overwhelmed, the first step is to recognize if your thoughts are rational or irrational. She recommended paying attention to your internal dialogue and physiological symptoms, such as headaches, blurred vision, heart palpitations, and trembling.
In this state, it can be difficult to effectively communicate with family, friends and peers, Johnson said. Writing your thoughts in a journal can help you sort through what you're experiencing and reflect on how those people are part of your support system.
Be gentle with yourself and give yourself grace when you become overwhelmed, she said. Taking a step back to slow down and practice self-care is commendable, she added.
"Perfectionism — that's too much pressure. I am a person," she said. "And when we're talking about athleticism, and athletes — we're looking at the whole person. That is only a part of how they identify."
The below Denver7 special provides multiple perspectives on the importance of mental health, how things have changed, and how all of us are healing after a tough year. It's a conversation we hope brings more people out of the dark and into the light.
Watch the special in the video here: