by | Oct 18, 2021 | Coping

3 ways Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are Helping Defeat the ‘Warrior Mentality’

“After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health.” This was the official statement from USA Gymnastics in late January, when gymnast Simone Biles pulled out from the Olympics, stating, in part, “We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.” Biles has had to cope with an extra year before the Olympics and the challenges of the pandemic, in addition to surviving sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, a former doctor for the US gymnastic team. “I’m still struggling with some things,” she explained. This brief statement shook the world of athletics and began a barrage of conversations regarding mental health. Perhaps “barrage” isn’t the correct term, as it is these types of military-fueled metaphors that have and continue to plague the sports world. Team leaders are “captains.” Coaches are “generals.” And, of course, athletes are “warriors,” soldiers on the battlefield of sport, ready to go to war for their country, their team, and their fans.

And indeed, our athletes better live up to these expectations. Ask Naomi Osaka, one of the best tennis players in the world, when she made her decision to pull out of a major championship due to challenges with depression. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka explained. This statement and her decision to not take part in post-match press conferences earned her a $15,000 fine from officials, as well as a threat to pull her from future tournaments.

Osaka and Biles made the grave sporting error of being vulnerable, of speaking from their hearts and letting the world know how they feel. However, by doing so, they have sparked a conversation. It is a difficult conversation, one that would often rather be skipped over and forgotten until the next major sporting event. They have told the world that they are, indeed, human beings, and suffer through the same difficulties as the rest of us. The following are three key ways these two athletes have allowed the world to reconsider how they view mental health, and in turn, how their own vulnerability can be viewed as a strength:

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  1. Mental toughness does not contradict mental health
  • One common misconception within our culture is that to care about your mental health detracts from your “mental toughness” or fortitude. While prevalent among athletes, this idea of fighting through the pain to accomplish your goals permeates all of our activities. Taking a “mental health day” is still often considered a poor excuse for not completing one’s work. However, in a recent literature review published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, authors Gucciardi, Hanton, and Fleming attempt to dispel this notion. These authors suggest that “mental toughness may represent a positive indicator of mental health or facilitate its attainment, rather than be at odds with it.” In other words, the ideas associated with being “mentally tough” are closely related to maintaining good mental health, including goal identification and attainment, removing negative thought patterns, and being present in the moment.
  1. No one is immune to pressure or stress, and that’s okay
  • Another key idea prevalent within the sports world is that the best athletes, and indeed anyone who wants to “achieve greatness,” must be able overcome the pressure and stress placed on them with ease. However, this could not be further from the truth. In an article published by Men’s Health, superstar athletes speak out on the inevitability of feeling stressed before an important game or event. Star NBA player Stephen Curry, for example, explains “I don’t know what I’ll feel when I walk in the arena. There’s no preparing yourself for that.” Curry goes on to explore how he deals with this pressure, advice that could well be attributed to any profession: “I’m going to have the same routine from the time I shoot around to the time I go home to the time I go to the game, and that should hopefully be able to calm myself down.” Having a routine to help de-stress is a positive mental health practice for anyone. One can see that Curry indeed must find his own way to deal with the stress of his profession, something we all can attempt to do.
  1. Vulnerability breeds intimacy
  • As fans (short for “fanatic”) who root for their favorite players and teams, we wish deeply to be closer to these athletes, to share in their glory. We want to understand how they do what they do, and support them through the process. One of the best ways to obtain greater intimacy in relationships is to allow oneself to be vulnerable within them. Indeed, in an article published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in January of last year, authors Khalifian and Barry portend that intimacy, or “a sense of closeness between individuals,” increases when individuals’ vulnerable disclosures are met with the supportive responses of others. Whether you are a superstar athlete speaking with her fans, or in an intimate conversation with a partner, being vulnerable and increasing intimacy is a fundamental component of healthy relationships and promotes mental and physical health.
Left: (Credit to REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson); Right: (Credit to Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports)

And thus, one could say that these two athletes, and an increasing number of others, have “given up.” They have given up pretending to be superheroes, pretending that they are immune to the struggles of everyday life. And now we know, now we are confronted with the truth of what these athletes truly are: human. Just like us. And if we cannot support each other through our most turbulent times, how can we be expected to celebrate together when we persevere and triumph? In this way, Biles and Osaka have actually given fans all around the world what they wanted. They have shared a part of themselves with us, and in return, have asked that we support each other. In other words: welcome to the team.

Author: Dr. Ryan Daniels

Dr. Ryan Daniels earned his Master’s Degree at the Derner Institute for Advanced Psychological Studies at Adelphi University, Garden City, NY, and his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, FL. Dr. Daniels has written articles and served on the board of numerous mental health organizations, such as the Florida chapter of Active Minds—an organization dedicated to reducing mental health stigma among teens and young adults.

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