The 2021 Tokyo Olympics shocked the world – but not for the reasons you would typically expect. It wasn’t crowd-less stadiums or the broken records that really got people talking this year. This Olympic summer, the spotlight turned to mental health.
And rightly so. After we all struggled through 2020 and all the difficulties it brought with it on every level, I think many of us were expecting things in 2021 to go back to normal. And we might have even been expecting the Olympics to remind us of what normal is like.
It’s possible that we were looking for people to look to. I think we all look up to the almost “superhero” Olympians that seem to defy the laws of nature and achieve things that most of us only dream of. We see them as strong, fearless, awe-inspiring, even invincible. But this summer, we learned that they, just like us, are vulnerable.
Perhaps the biggest shock of this year’s Olympics was Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the women’s team final and from the individual all-around competition. Being the world-class gold medal gymnast that she is, her decision to withdraw was a shocking surprise for the world.
NPR reports Simone Biles saying, “I say put mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So, it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.” (1)
Simone’s decision to put her mental health first was criticized by many people, but it also opened the conversation about athletes and mental health. Your mental health is a very personal matter, but it’s also something that needs to be talked about in our world today. Like Simone said, sometimes you need to “focus on yourself” – even when the world is watching and everything is at stake.
Her decision was the correct one – not because it gave her teammates the opportunity to compete and win silver, not because she already has four gold medals, and not because she’s the best gymnast in the world. Rather, her decision was the correct one because it was right for her, and it was what she felt she needed.
Simone’s decision and comments about mental health and mindfulness opened the door for many athletes to join her in talking about the stresses of being and Olympic athlete and how it affects mental health. Many of her fellow athletes supported her decision and showed her lots of support and love.
Allyson Felix, USA’s most decorated track and field Olympian, offered her support to Simone and said, “with everything that Simone has gone through, I’m really proud of her and the way she is standing up for herself but also making things better for others and bringing a lot to the forefront of these conversations” (2).
Many athletes, like Kate Nye and Michael Phelps, also opened up about their mental health struggles. That’s the beauty of vulnerability. When one brave, courageous competitor like Simone Biles opens up and authentically shares her struggle, it opens the door for everyone else to take courage and share as well.
This summer, Simone Biles taught the world that being the best doesn’t mean winning every single competition. It doesn’t mean that you are invincible and never struggle. And it doesn’t even mean that you battle through the struggle to overcome all odds. She taught the world that being victorious isn’t always about winning gold.
And, I would say that her decision connected us all. For young athletes that struggle with anxiety and depression, the Olympics reassured them that that’s okay, that it’s normal. That we all struggle. For professional athletes that feel pressured by coaches and the world to compete even when they don’t feel like they can, Simone Biles stood up and showed everyone that putting mental health first is an option – and probably even the safest option.
For all of us, the Tokyo Olympics re-opened the very serious and important conversation about mental health that we should all be having with our friends, with our family, and with everyone. It’s showed us that we all struggle. But even though we all struggle, we have each other.
Everyone knows it’s important to take care of your physical health. And it’s pretty easy to know how to take care of your body – work out, eat right, move around, wash your hands, get enough rest – these are things we’ve been taught ever since we were little.
Mental health and mindfulness, on the other hand, it’s a whole different story. Now, more than ever, we are learning the importance of mental health. But many people, maybe even most, still struggle to know how to take care of your mental health.
Sometimes it feels like it’s something you can’t control. Sometimes it feels overwhelming. Sometimes the stress and anxiety are off the charts. What do you do in those moments? How can you put your mental health first?
There are many resources available online to improve your mindfulness and connect more with yourself. One of those resources is called I Don’t Mind – an awareness campaign that inspires open and honest conversations about mental health. They have a great 10-minute mental health checkup that you can use to check in with yourself or with someone you love. (3)
Here’s the first 5 questions that you can use to be more mindful and check in with your own mental health. Take just 5 minutes right now and answer them as best you can, in writing or just in your head:
Taking a few minutes to self-reflect each day can be the start of improving your mental health and taking steps in the right direction to take better care of your overall health. Remember, your mental health is just as important as your physical health. To be the best version of yourself, and to truly succeed, you need both.
For more resources about mental health, check out this page here.