Lessons on Mental Health From the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Though the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed to 2021, the intensity and scope of the event hasn't changed. What has changed is how the athletes and coaches are handling the stress of the event. The combination of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the competitive environment makes the 2020 Olympics a unique situation. Notably, Simone Biles, an American gymnast, withdrew from several competitions, citing her mental health as the reason why. She returned to the balance beam on August 4, and this has put a new spotlight on mental health and its relationship to stress, attention and personal performance.

About Simone Biles

Simone Biles has been a competitive gymnast since the age of six. She's widely considered to be one of the best American gymnasts of all time as well as one of the best gymnasts in the world. She has the most World metals and World gold medals as of 2021. Biles has one medals in every type of gymnastics event. Her first Olympics was the 2016 Rio event. She won four individual medals in the 2016 Olympics at Rio. She continued competing in domestic and worldwide gymnastics events and qualified for Tokyo 2020. The Tokyo games were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The event started in July 2021.

Simone Biles' Performance in Tokyo

On July 25, Biles competed in the qualifying competition for Team USA in Tokyo. She was named as a team member. On July 27, she entered the vault competition. The team placed silver for the event. Her vault received a low score, and she wasn't rated as highly as critics expected her to on the vault's difficulty. She modified the vault mid-air, only completing 1.5 twists instead of the 2.5 twists called for by the exercise. After the vault, she left the competition floor for a short period of time, visibly upset with her performance.

Withdrawal From Competitive Events

On July 28, Biles announced that she was going to withdraw from four individual events, including the vault, uneven bars, floor and individual all-around competition. She cited mental health as the reason for her withdrawal from the events. She saw the team physician, who evaluated her physical and mental health on July 30. Many people following the Olympic games were shocked at her withdrawal and were left to wonder what was happening with the typically staid and steady athlete.

Revelation of a Death in the Family

On August 5, Biles revealed that her aunt passed away during the Olympic games. The sudden and unexpected passing of her aunt jolted her mental health. Biles had a difficult childhood after being surrendered by her mother. She and her three siblings were put into foster care until their maternal grandparents learned about the situation and took them in. She and her siblings were eventually adopted by their grandparents. The aunt who passed away was close to Biles.

Return to the Balance Beam

Biles' withdrawal from the four other events did not include withdrawal from the balance beam. On August 5, she competed in the balance beam event and won a bronze medal. When asked about her withdrawal from the other events, she explained that she had what gymnasts call the "twisties." This is a psychological event in which an athlete loses awareness of their position while they are in the air. She had experienced this on the uneven bars and floor, but it was her first time experiencing the phenomenon on the balance beam. The stress of it all was the reason for her withdrawal. Other gymnasts confirmed that similar events had happened to them, and they supported her decision to withdraw from the events.

Renewed Focus on Mental Health in Competitive Athletes

When Biles withdrew from the four Olympic events, this put a spotlight on mental health in competitive athletes. These elite competitors are often seen as resilient, tough and able to get through anything. Sports psychology and competition are as important to their training as the physical aspects of their sports. From moms and dads to other athletes, people have been thankful for Biles for revealing the reasons for her withdrawal.

Perception of the Public

Biles has enjoyed widespread support from Americans and people around the world. People agree that mental health is more important than winning a medal. Biles demonstrated that valuing herself for who she is and protecting her mental health are important now and to her future.

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