On the subject of mental health in sports

A few years ago, I spoke on a panel with some inspirational, badass women (who happen to be some of the best female fighters in the world) - Michelle Waterson and Jinh Yu Frey - at Onnit's headquarters for a women's sparring clinic. The main topic of discussion was mental health in sports.

I couldn't help but be flooded back through memory lane around that conversation as Simone Biles, and most recently before the Olympics Naomi Osaka, advocated for their mental health by pulling themselves out of major global competition because they felt their health and, in the case of Simone, personal safety was at risk. 

The shock and vitriol was swift - after all, how do these "GOATs" (Greatest of All Time) break down? They're supposed to be invincible. Exceptional. We revere them, admire them, aspire to be like them - that's what makes them GOATs, right? They can persevere, push and strive like no other humans on Earth. And they devote their entire lives and waking hours to being "the best," and it's "their job."

That's precisely the problem. We've stripped them of their humanity, and it's unjust.

 

This dehumanization also strips them of their ability to advocate for their personal safety, in the name of exceptionalism. In the case of Simone, mid-air of one of her legendary vaults during the team gymnastics finals, she experienced a phenomenon called the "twisties." According to the Washington Post:

"Imagine flying through the air, springing off a piece of equipment as you prepare to flip on one axis while twisting on another. It all happens fast, so there’s little time to adjust. You rely on muscle memory, trusting that it will work out because, with so much practice, it usually does. But then suddenly you’re upside down in midair and your brain feels disconnected from your body. Your limbs that usually control how much you spin have stopped listening, and you feel lost. You hope all the years you spent in this sport will guide your body to a safe landing position.

 

When Simone Biles pushed off the vaulting table Tuesday, she entered that terrifying world of uncertainty...

 

The twisties, well-known in the gymnastics community, describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the twisties, they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape."

Mental lapses in gymnastics can lead to permanent paralysis - read about the horrific story of Elena Mukhina. The push for exceptionalism completely altered the course of her life forever, all because of standards pressured upon her that pushed her to make a decision that she knew fundamentally wasn't right. 

The intersection of physical and mental health is deep. The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, recently produced a documentary on HBO Max titled "The Weight of Gold." If you haven't watched it, I highly recommend it. It focuses on the epidemic of depression and suicide amongst Olympians and shares the inspirational, moving, as well as tragic, stories of various former US Olympians. If you didn't know, a consensus statement from the International Olympic Committee found that in elite athletes, including Olympians, rates of anxiety and depression may be as high as 45%. Michael Phelps who narrated and co-produced the film, said that he suspects at least 80% of Olympians go through "some sort of post-Olympic depression." 

Just as much as there's been vitriol, the outpouring of support has been far and vast and we are facing the start of a game-changing movement. It needs to keep going, and we must keep amplifying. The support will continue to protect and save lives. We still treat athletes as solely gladiators and that's it - we still treat them like what happens to them in "the arena" just comes with the territory. While some elements of that are true, on the other hand, what if we could usher in an era where people like Kevin Love (another outspoken pro athlete on mental health), Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are truly STILL gladiators - highly accomplished beyond anyone's imagination, AND they inspire all of us to tap into our collective humanity? That's powerful beyond medals. Muhammad Ali is remembered as a penultimate GOAT in the ring and in sports history. But everything he dared to do and say as an activist and human, in the name of justice, is more powerful than any single knockout. 

The wins, losses, unbelievable pressure and expectations, press and social media - they all can influence athletes to believe who and what they are allowed to be, and can significantly impact their sense of worth. Beyond the "gold", beyond the endorsements and checks - a sense of humanity is irreplaceable and priceless. Whether you're an Olympian, a professional fighter or a highly followed instructor in your community, you are more than all of those things. You are human. You are so much more than your sport, a title, a medal, or the podium. You owe us nothing, other than your best and respect and compassion to others. Your story and your journey are your legacy. What you say, what you do, how you treat and inspire others goes far and beyond a single medal or win on your record.

- Lynn
Founder, Society Nine


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