Opinion / by Marco Ricci
With her withdrawal from Olympic competition, US gymnast Simone Biles became the latest athlete to pull out of a major competition due to mental health concerns. Yet despite the personal nature of such a decision, Biles drew criticism for not showcasing the mindset of a champion athlete. So, Marco Ricci asks, is it time we re-define what a 'champion's mentality' really is?
"Put mental health first," was the motto uttered by Simone Biles as she addressed members of press after pulling out of the women's team gymnastics final at Tokyo 2020. Having dominated the previous Olympic games in Rio, where she won four gold medals and one bronze, it was hard for many to believe what they had witnessed.
"If you don't, you're not going to enjoy your sport and you're not going to succeed as much as you want to," added Biles. "So it's okay to sometimes sit out the major competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong a competitor and person you really are."
It was a moment that will go down in history. Considered to be one of the greatest gymnasts to ever live, boasting a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals at the age of just 24, Simone Biles walked away from adding to her already stratospheric tally.
Yet, considering her reasoning, Biles' decision didn't seem to me to be anything exceptional. After all, mental health is a far more recognised issue these days, including within the workplace (which, ultimately, is what the gym is to Biles).
Soon though, I found my perception challenged as I delved into the cosmos of opinions that is social media.
Many, it seems, think that Biles' withdrawal was the wrong thing to do. Some considered her actions selfish, explaining that her decision placed undue pressure on her teammates to fight for a medal. Some considered her actions performative, citing the quality of her work during the first round of the final as the reason why she would need to make such an 'excuse'. Some even suggested that her actions were self-imposed, saying that her embracing of the 'Greatest of All Time' moniker meant the weight of expectation was simply too much for her to bear.
What it means to think like a champion
What most intrigued me though was the questioning of her competitive mindset, comparing it to a wider definition of what it means to have a 'champion's mentality'.
Of course, this is a term that I, and no doubt many of you, have heard used before. It's a term used to encompass an athlete's ability to physically and mentally push through barriers and overcome obstacles on their way to achieving the coveted label of 'champion' in their sport.
For any athlete, this mental fortitude is fostered over time as they endure gruelling training and dieting regimens in the race to achieve peak condition. It is developed through the countless competitions, the wins, the draws, and the losses they experience on their way to the top of their sport.
And for many, it begins to be honed from a young age through a structured life built around the sole intention to truly master their craft, instead of the 'normal' care-free childhood of school days, school work and flourishing friendships. Gymnastics is one of the most apt examples of such a scenario – for decades, the average professional gymnast was a teenager.
These are people who live and think like an athlete for as long as they can remember while most of us are still trying to shape our futures.
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Yet it seems this mentality can be broken in an instant. According to some, the moment an athlete decides to take a step back from the constant climb to greatness, they are showing signs of an athlete who can't 'go' anymore. That entire journey to performing on the grandest stage of them all was wasted.
And unfortunately this is a perspective that has haunted the realms of sport for far too long.
Only a few weeks prior to the Olympics, critics began questioning the mindset of Naomi Osaka – currently ranked second in the Women's Tennis Association rankings – when she decided to skip this year's Wimbledon due to personal struggles with depression and anxiety.
Many considered the career of Tyson Fury, current WBC heavyweight boxing champion, to be over when he took an extended period away from the sport while struggling with his mental health.
Football pundits around the world have continuously scrutinised the mindset of Spanish footballer Alvaro Morata because of his openness about his struggles for confidence, despite him being a man who has played at some of the biggest football clubs in the world.
All three follow in the footsteps of many others: Paul Gascoigne. Michael Jordan. Ronda Rousey. George Best. Michael Phelps. Andrew Luck. Mike Tyson. Alex Higgins. Tiger Woods. Andrew Flintoff. Serena Williams. Diego Maradona.
All of those names share the commonality that they are some of the most decorated and celebrated sports personalities that have ever lived, in spite of the mental health struggles they've dealt with.
And all have had their mentality questioned on their way to achieving greatness.
It's time for change
From a personal perspective, I have always thought that mental health in sport is a subject that isn't discussed seriously enough. Too often in my life, phrases like 'they get paid to be under pressure', 'their job is a game', or 'they only need to do this for a few years' have featured in discussions about a particular athlete's mentality as a way to justify why it should be criticised.
Phrases like these feel designed to cut off any possibility that an athlete could be affected by mental health issues, in turn preventing any genuine conversation about the wider topic of mental health in sport.
Understanding why anyone would want to do that is the part that puzzles me. Perhaps it's something to do with our perception of athletes as infallible super-humans that means we feel uncomfortable talking about any potential mental 'weakness' they could have. After all, if even the best in the world at what they do can be affected, what is the likelihood of the average person having the same?
Maybe it's something to do with our relationship with success and how we define it. How can these athletes, paid what they are paid for doing what they love to do, still be susceptible to issues that are all too common for the rest of us? After all, isn't success only attainable through a strong, unbreakable mental toughness?
Could it be that we see these athletes as the best versions of ourselves, as individuals we live vicariously through, and to see them be affected psychologically by what they do doesn't quite fit with what we'd expect if we were in their position?
Whatever the reason is though, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that our understanding of what the mindset of an athlete should actually be is out-dated. We have been consistently presented with 'troubled heroes' and 'flawed geniuses', people who are as susceptible to mental pressures as much as the rest of us – yet the perception that a champion athlete cannot and should not be affected by mental health issues remains.
Biles' actions not only feel like a historic moment in sports history, but also a chance for us all to question whether our perceptions of mental health in sport align with reality. And if we are to have a healthier discussion on the topic, one of the first things we're going to need to do is examine the standards we hold for athletes, the reasons behind our beliefs, and where they need to change.
And perhaps most importantly, re-define what a 'champion's mentality' really is.