Simone Biles and talking to our kids about mental health in sports

I have sat on this column for a while. When news of Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympic gymnastics competition broke, I did several TV interviews about mental health in sports. I considered writing a newspaper column along those lines, but everyone was writing those columns. In one of those TV interviews, though, the host asked me what Biles’ withdrawal meant for young athletes? After all, there are millions of kids who play sports, far exceeding the number of athletes competing to be the best in the world. Shouldn’t we address mental health in our young athletes? And how can we figure out there is even a problem? Kids don’t even know what anxiety feels like, so how can they tell us there is a problem?

I feel strongly that this is an important issue, and I hope parents and coaches read this and take the messages seriously to protect the health and well-being of our kids. The following is a modified version of my latest newspaper column.

When we look back to identify the singular image from these Olympic Games, it’s hard to imagine it won’t be the shocking withdrawal of gymnast Simone Biles.

By now, we all know the story. Biles falters on her first vault in the team finals, goes to the locker room, emerges in a sweatsuit, and cheers on her teammates for the remainder of the competition. Then we hear she withdrew due to a “medical issue.” Then it was mental health, with Biles admitting she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. Then came the “twisties,” the gymnastics equivalent of the yips in baseball, when a player suddenly can’t throw a ball to home plate or first base. As much as some people laugh about the twisties, if you are spinning in mid-air and suddenly can’t finish your rotations, you could land on your head and die.

Most of the reaction to Biles’ withdrawal, once the shock subsided, was positive. Sure, there have been some ridiculous criticisms launched her way. But most of those people, and her countless critics on social media, have never reached the top. They have never accomplished anything of significance.

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These critics don’t know what it’s like to train every day, and push through the inevitable pain that comes with landing from high in the air, over and over. They don’t know what it’s like to win – and then be expected to win again, and again, and again. They don’t know what it’s like to have the pressure of an entire country on them, to rescue an American team which didn’t perform as well as expected in team qualifiers, a team that is expected to win because as Americans, we are supposedly the best.

I don’t pretend to know what it’s like either. But I’ve seen firsthand the pressure elite athletes face. Serving as Tournament Physician for the Family Circle Cup (now Volvo Car Open) for eight years, I was fortunate enough to treat most of the top players in women’s tennis. On many occasions, a player would cry in my makeshift office in the players’ clubhouse. When I asked what was wrong, because sore shoulders or ankles don’t usually have athletes in tears, they often admitted they just wanted to go home, see their families, sleep, and not deal with sponsors, media, travel from tournament to tournament, and expectations of always being at their best.

Many pundits claim Biles chose her mental health over greatness. I reject that dichotomy. It’s not one or the other. You can’t have greatness without mental health. Without physical and emotional health and well-being. Maybe you can reach the top of your sport with the world around you in turmoil (Tiger Woods and early Andre Agassi come to mind), but you won’t stay there long. You have to take care of yourself and surround yourself with people who support you through it all – good and bad.

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I’m thrilled Simone Biles is raising awareness of mental health at the highest levels of sports. To me, though, the more important conversations are the ones we need to have with our kids. Our kids who look up to Simone Biles and want to be her one day. If not in gymnastics, then in baseball or basketball or soccer or football. What should they learn from Simone Biles? What should we, as parents, understand and say to them?

First, communication is critical. Young athletes put a ton of pressure on themselves. They don’t want to let their coaches down, their teammates down, even let you down by missing a game because their arm or leg hurts, or worse, because they don’t enjoy playing.

Kids don’t know what anxiety feels like or what to look for. Start having real conversations with your kids. From day one. The second they get in your car after practice or games, don’t ask them about performance and who won and who lost. Ask them about something fun that happened, maybe something that made them laugh. Once your child gets comfortable knowing that they can talk to you without judgment or criticism, they will open up and discuss their fears or concerns.

Look for signs of trouble, because your child might not tell you something is wrong. Maybe she doesn’t want to eat. Maybe she seems withdrawn at home or at school, or gets nagging injuries that never seem to get better. Sports should be fun for a child, not a burden.

Also read:
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Focus less on success, and try to develop their enjoyment of the sport instead. A child who truly loves a sport will ultimately be a better athlete, and a more successful athlete, than one whose mom, dad, or coach yells at her every day, pushing her to win at all costs.

I know there are coaches out there – good coaches, who love their athletes and want the best for them – who worry the Simone Biles drama will encourage kids to quit whenever their sport gets hard. I understand that argument, but it misses the bigger picture, in my opinion.

Open, honest communication presents the opportunity for a coach to have a meaningful conversation with the athlete. You can tell him or her that yes, pain can be part of it. Pressure is part of it. But he or she should talk to you about it and ask whether she needs a little rest or is ok to push through it. And if there is a kid who seems to sit out too often for what looks like no good reason, he or she probably shouldn’t be playing the sport anyway.

Finally, for all the young athletes who look up to Simone, who were devastated that she couldn’t compete, please understand this reality. No matter how good you are, even if you’re the best in the world – maybe the best of all time – sometimes it won’t go your way. It’s ok to fail. Setbacks happen. Failures happen. That’s the way it goes in sports, and in life. Just because you failed this one time does NOT mean you are a failure.