Geneva sports psychologist calls Simone Biles' Olympic decision 'extremely courageous'

  • After exiting the team final at the Tokyo Olympics, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles announced she won't be participating in the all-around final so she can focus on her mental health.

    After exiting the team final at the Tokyo Olympics, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles announced she won't be participating in the all-around final so she can focus on her mental health. Associated Press

  • Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka, who lost in the third round of the Tokyo Olympics tournament, has been open about her mental health struggles.

    Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka, who lost in the third round of the Tokyo Olympics tournament, has been open about her mental health struggles. Associated Press

  • Peter Temple

    Peter Temple

 
 
Updated 7/29/2021 8:46 AM

The moment Simone Biles announced she was exiting the team and all-around women's gymnastics competitions at the Tokyo Olympics, the six-time medalist changed the conversation on athletes and their mental health.

While other ultra-famous athletes such as swimming great Michael Phelps and tennis champion Naomi Osaka also have recently addressed their mental health issues, Biles stepping away during competition on the world's biggest stage presents a unique situation.

 

Geneva-based clinical and performance psychologist Peter Temple -- author of "Playing in the Box: A Practical Guide for Helping Athletes Develop Their Mental Game" and founder of Mind's Eye Sports Performance -- specializes in helping young athletes work through their mental development to complement their physical development.

In an interview, Temple shared his thoughts about Biles and the importance of athletes' mental health.

Q: What was your reaction to Simone Biles announcing she was stepping away from competition?

A: My gut reaction was I'm sad for her. You could tell she was just kind of grinding through. But I really thought this is important because what she did was extremely courageous. It frees up athletes to think about their own mental health and well-being.

Q: How common is it for an athlete to exit in the middle of a competition for mental health reasons?

A: This is the big moment where you expect she's going to be locked in, but it's also the peak moment of mounting stress. It could be that she was fine in the stages that led up to the Olympics, but there was a mounting pressure and lots of other things that got to the point where it impacted her performance. She could have easily said, "I tweaked my ankle" and not talked about mental health, but that's where I think she's been so courageous. That's what's going to make things better for the next generation of athletes.

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Q: How debilitating can a mental health issue be compared to a physical injury?

A: Just like I'd want you to come to me if your elbow is hurting, and maybe we'd have you throw less, I'd want you to come to me and say you're feeling anxious or depressed or feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. And we can figure out what to do about that, too.

Q: How often do athletes simply push through mental health issues?

A: Athletes push through it a lot, just like they push through a nagging injury. And sometimes you shouldn't push through an injury because you can do more harm. That's when you talk to a coach or a trainer and see if they think you should push through. The equivalent for that mentally is having performance anxiety, or getting in your head a little bit with worries and negative self-talk. Just as you talk to a trainer about injuries, you should be able to talk about mental health without being put in a box of not being mentally tough. Talk to a parent or a coach or someone like me who can give athletes tools to work through issues.

Q: What are basic tools you give athletes to handle anxiety and other mental health issues?

A: I always make sure part of their performance plan is how to take care of yourself mentally and emotionally. We need to make sure they know that third gear -- the mental part of it along with their physicality and their technical skills -- is something we want to understand and be able to take care of. We want them to know how to use mindfulness and relaxation to kind of slow themselves down and manage some of that anxiety.

Q: How important is it to see Biles, Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and others coming forward with their mental health struggles?

A: It's huge. Not only does a young athlete look at that and know it's OK, (but) teams and organizations might be more likely to look at what they're doing to address mental health.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Q: How manageable are issues like this? Can it be career-ending for athletes?

A: It's immensely manageable. Sometimes the feeling of pressure is self-imposed and you can change that by changing the way you think. But it can get to a point, especially if it's ignored, that the pressure gets to be too much and athletes just walk away.

Q: Now that the conversation about Biles and others has emerged in such a public way, do you expect to see an increase in athletes telling their own stories and seeking help?

A: This is big. This is a moment that could have a great impact. Now kids feel a little bit more empowered and a little less hesitant to say, "I feel like that sometimes." Hopefully there's an uptick for lots of people, whether it's coaches or teachers or someone like me, in talking to those kids. Because we can help them.

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