Mind Over Matter

Recently, athletes have started to recognize the power of their minds on their performance and prioritize their mental health as teams begin to incorporate mental skills coaches on their staff.

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“What’s a strong body without a sound mind? We’re so focused on strength that we forget the strength in our focus,” LeBron James said in an advertisement for the Calm app, which offers guided meditations. “While the greats master the body, the greatest master the mind.”

Mental health and wellness have long been overlooked in the world of athletics. While there has always been an emphasis on physical fortitude, few athletes have acknowledged the importance of their mental health in their success. Oftentimes, athletes who stay connected with their emotions and prioritize their wellness over playing it through have been portrayed as weak or not suited to play against the top competition.

This past year, world-class athletes have started prioritizing their mental health over achieving greatness in competitions. Four-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team finals and the Olympic all-around events in the 2020 Tokyo Games (held in 2021) due to a mental health issue. She was expected to win gold in at least three of all four event finals, as she had not lost an all-around competition since 2013, when she was 16 years old. As she competed in the first event final though, Biles realized that she was not in the right headspace to compete and feared that doing so would increase her risk of injury in events like the vault.

Biles’s decision came around a month after four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after being penalized for not participating in post-game media conferences. Osaka opened up about her social anxiety and bouts of depression since winning her first major in the 2018 U.S. Open and stated that she would be taking some time away from the court. She protected her mind rather than succumbing to tournament rules, speaking to the media, and continuing to compete.

Fans had a mix of reactions to such withdrawals for both Biles and Osaka. Many criticized Biles for putting herself over glory for the United States, believing that she should have just pushed through and competed. However, these critics did not understand that Biles’s mental health was interfering with her performance and would only hurt her and the U.S. gymnastics team’s performance. Texas Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz even tweeted that Biles was a “national embarrassment,” comparing her to U.S. Olympic gold medalist gymnast Kerri Strug in the 1996 Olympics, who continued to compete while she was injured and won gold. For Osaka, after a third-round loss in this year’s Olympic games, she received widespread backlash from Japanese fans, criticizing her on all aspects from her identity to her tennis ability and mental health struggles.

Osaka and Biles served major roles in sparking a global conversation on mental health in sports. With the COVID-19 pandemic upheaval, mental health concerns became a major preoccupation for the general public, which ultimately resulted in more empathy and understanding toward the issue. In athletics, all leagues stopped in their tracks as safety became the main priority.

This increased mental health awareness should not be a phase. As we continue to navigate the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes should continue to listen to their minds and care for themselves.

Many athletes have started to dedicate their time to raising awareness for this important issue, developing greater discipline and the focus necessary to remain calm under pressure. Sports have long involved a culture of winning at all costs, being machismo, and playing through injury or pain. With James partnering with the Calm app and advocating for meditation, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love, retired Olympian Michael Phelps, tennis champion Serena Williams, Olympian Usain Bolt, and others speaking up about the mental side of competing at such high levels in athletics, sports leagues are taking notice and making strides in supporting their players’ wellness.

Today, about half of the teams in the NBA have a mental skills coach on staff. Teams in all leagues, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Kansas City Chiefs, and Toronto Blue Jays, recognize the power of an athlete maintaining a strong mental state and have thus invested in developing such mentalities for their players. The addition of mental skills coaches on sports teams’ staffs began in the early 2000s, but only recently have teams begun to embrace it. Mental coaching involves mindfulness, attention training, and avoiding cognitive interference. It particularly addresses an uncertain situation, an unclear future, unknown parameters, and unexpected stressors. An athlete with higher psychological flexibility, the ability to remain in the present regardless of distractions, is more likely to succeed. Teams have realized this fact and are slowly harnessing its benefits.

As important as grit and perseverance are to success in athletics, the key foundation to building confidence is mental health and wellness. Professional athletes certainly have elite skills in their respective sports, yet they are still human like all of the fans. It’s unjust to expect that they can tune out their feelings, concerns, and fears and perform at their best like robots. They experience immense amounts of pressure for greatness every day, and fans typically don’t recognize the amount of resilience it takes. Let’s shift the conversation in the sports world, understanding that athletes undergo enormous mental and physical pressure and respecting when they need a break.