Student athletes identify with Simone Biles’ mental health struggles

September 13, 2021 — by Anamika Anand and Anjali Pai
Photo by Anjali Pai

At gymnastics practice, junior Samantha Stoiber performs flyaways on bars and back handsprings on beams with confidence, but when it comes to competition, like so many athletes, Stoiber sometimes faces mental blocks — she can’t bring herself to perform skills done almost effortlessly in practice. 

High school  athletes like Stoiber identify with the struggles they saw in gymnast Simone Biles, the greatest athlete of all time in her sport, at the Tokyo Olympics.  

As she progressed through gymnastics, the skills Stoiber learned became increasingly difficult and dangerous, deepening her mental strain. With her mental health affecting her athletic performances, she said gymnastics became overwhelming. 

“I just couldn’t perform the gymnastics skills,” Stoiber said. “Mental health repeatedly affecting my performance kept piling up and it got worse and worse, so I ended up quitting due to the mental toll the sport took on me.”

Many athletes share Stoiber’s experiences and are accustomed to facing a number of roadblocks on the journey in achieving their dreams. While some take life-threatening risks to get there, others make the decision of prioritizing their mental health and safety. For 2016 Olympic gymnastics champion Biles, it was her mental health that took the top priority this past summer. 

Biles dropped out of both the all-round competition and three of the event finals due to suffering a case of the “twisties,” which occurs when a gymnast is unaware of where they are in the air. This poses the risk of the gymnast landing on their head or neck, possibly resulting in serious injuries like paralysis. 

Thus, Stoiber resonated with Biles’ reason for dropping out of the Olympic events. In addition to the twisties, Stoiber said that there are many other ways gymnasts can be mentally affected by their sport. One of them includes issues surrounding self-worth, which Stoiber has also faced.

“I started doing gymnastics so often that I kind of valued my self worth based on how I was doing in the sport,” Stoiber said. “This sounds a little bad to say, but I was used to winning at first. But when I went to the Junior Olympic (JO) program, I wasn’t anymore, so it was stressful.”

Junior tennis player Arshi Chawla also identified with Biles’ struggles. 

“At first, I was a bit shocked because I always thought of Simone Biles as unstoppable,” Chawla said. “After hearing why she dropped out of the Olympics, it made more sense to me and I completely support her decision. She has to put her own safety and well-being ahead of any titles or awards.”

Biles is not the first famous athlete to give up competing at a major event to preserve their mental health; tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in Summer 2021 for the same reason. 

Chawla, a fan of Osaka, had followed the renowned tennis player when she withdrew from the French Open, so her decision was not as big of a shock to her.

“I supported Osaka’s decision entirely,” Chawla said. “It really just showed me how demanding sports are, in addition to being in the public eye.”

Chawla has also struggled with the mental demands of being on the SHS varsity tennis team. She recalls that sometimes, usually when she plays an unsuccessful match, thoughts of what went wrong consume her mind.

While Biles’ and Osaka’s decisions may have shocked and disappointed some, it is nonetheless inspiring for many athletes who have their own struggles with mental health.Chawla said that famous athletes who have spoken out about their mental health have played a vital role in destigmatizing the discussion of the topic.

“In the competitive environment we are in, so many people struggle with mental health issues but they either don’t know how to seek help or are unable to,” Chawla said. “When famous athletes are transparent about their struggles it really humanizes the effect of mental health and allows people to talk about their issues because they know it isn’t something to be ashamed of.”

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