Just one day after withdrawing from the women’s gymnastics team final, Simone Biles has decided to also remove herself from the individual all-around competition. The turn of events has been stunning and it is shining a spotlight on mental health.
Considering everything involved with the sport and pressures of the Olympics, some who spoke with NBC Connecticut seem to have some understanding of how this could have happened. Kathy Johnson has been coaching gymnasts for 30 years and stresses that the sport’s mental aspect is every bit as important as the physical.
“They are doing skills that a human body is not designed to do,” said Johnson. “If they are not mentally comfortable and they bail out the middle of the air it could be catastrophic.”
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Gymnasts by nature are forced to flip, bend and stretch their bodies beyond imagination but according to Johnson they don’t always allow themselves a lot of flexibility.
“Those are the types of athletes that are involved in gymnastics. They’re perfectionists they put a lot of pressure on themselves,” said Johnson.
Sarah McKinney is a high school gymnast. She understands the pressure that comes competing in a sport literally judged on perfection.
“Sometimes I would feel like that was like the best routine I’ve ever done. Then you get your score back and it’s just not how you thought you did,” explained McKinney.
According to one psychologist, it’s common for successful people like Biles to develop perfectionist tendencies. Dr. Laura Saunders says this can lead to what she describes as black and white thinking.
“It’s a trick that our mind plays on us. It’s either all good or all bad. It’s either perfect or it’s a disaster,” says Saunders, a psychologist at the Hartford Institute of Living.
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Saunders says high-level athletes have immense pressure on themselves but says when an athlete talks about mental health issues, it helps remove stigmas often associated with mental health.
“The more it makes the conversation easier for all of us because it’s something we all have to deal with,” said Saunders.
Saunders also emphasized that the mental health of athletes can often be impacted by coaches and parents. She says, be careful and positive with how you speak to young athletes, because your words can live with them for a lifetime.