'Incredible bravery': Counsellor weighs in on pressure and mental health in sport

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Simone Biles avoids a bee during the medal ceremony after a competition in 2014 in Nanning, China. She withdrew from competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday due to mental health concerns. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images - image credit)
Simone Biles avoids a bee during the medal ceremony after a competition in 2014 in Nanning, China. She withdrew from competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday due to mental health concerns. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images - image credit)

Before U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the women's team final at the Tokyo Games earlier this week, she wrote on social media that she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders.

"I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me," the athlete said in an Instagram post, "but damn."

With four Olympic gold medals and 19 world championship titles under her belt, 24-year-old Biles is a gymnastics superstar — and no stranger to competition or scrutiny.

But during Tuesday's vault event, Biles would complete just one-and-a-half of her planned two-and-a-half twists in the air before officially withdrawing from the team final, citing her mental health in the decision that stunned the public.

Clare Fewster has worked for over 15 years as a mental performance consultant and counsellor with the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary.

She said Biles's actions align with a broader pivot away from the perception of athletes as "superhuman."

In fact, the gymnast now joins a growing list of high-profile athletes — including Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps — who have also opened up about pressure in sport and its impact on mental health.

"I think what we're starting to see is there are athletes that are struggling … and now they have voices," Fewster told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

"They are starting to say, 'Hey, I need to take care of myself, and I'm more than just an athlete. I am not here only to entertain everyone, and I need to protect that.'"

Pressure, criticism and expectation

According to a recent peer-reviewed study from researchers at the University of Toronto's faculty of kinesiology that analyzed the mental health of Canadian Olympians, stress and training load were "statistically significant correlates" of depression and anxiety.

And according to Fewster, pressure can sometimes lead to a fear response intense enough to impact the body.

Whether an athlete is a potential medallist or not, Olympic expectations are heavy, she said.

There can be a sense of responsibility to do well, because parents, coaches and sponsors have put so much energy into them.

"They're on the world stage and people are watching, and social media has really had a big impact on that, because of the criticism that they get," Fewster said.

"We can hear the voices — some very, very negative voices, and sometimes abusive voices … that no one deserves."

'It could have been disastrous'

When Biles withdrew, a flood of support swept through social media. But criticism also followed: that she is a quitter, or that she should have pushed through.

Not so, Fewster said. What Biles did showed tremendous strength.

"It takes incredible bravery and courage … to stand up and advocate for her mental health and what she needs," Fewster said.

Additionally, performing could have had serious consequences for Biles, Fewster said.

The error that she made during competition was one she had also made in practice, and the athlete later described experiencing "a little bit of the twisties."

The term is used to describe a mental error, or block, that can feel like getting lost in the air.

"Gymnastics is a very high-risk sport," Fewster said.

"If she felt she couldn't do something, it could have been disastrous to push her."

'I think it's going to be huge for athletes'

In the aftermath of her withdrawal, Biles said on Twitter that the love and support she received "has made me realize I'm more than my accomplishments … which I never truly believed before."

Fewster believes her example will also help other athletes who are struggling while feeling immense pressure to perform and succeed.

"The more athletes that are [speaking out], other athletes feel safe, they feel respected, they feel like this is going to be OK for them," Fewster said.

"I think it's going to be huge for athletes, and I think it's going to be mostly important for society to understand that … they have emotions, they have feelings and there are immense challenges."

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