Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Jade Jones: Is sport undergoing a mental health revolution?

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka at Tokyo 2020

The ability to handle pressure has always been a trait associated with top athletes. As former basketball player Rob Horry once said: “Pressure can either burst a pipe or create a diamond.”

And while to some extent this is true, few people consider the cost of dealing with such pressure on the sportspeople themselves.

Simone Biles’ recent withdrawal from the Olympic gymnastics team event exemplifies this point. As a four-time Olympic gold medallist, 19-time world champion and undisputedly the greatest gymnast of all time –– the 24-year-old has demonstrated she can handle immense pressure.

But as proven yesterday, sometimes the consequences of putting yourself through the mental strain of dealing with the weight of expectation simply isn’t worth it.

As Biles stressed after the event: “I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now.

“We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.”

Simone Biles watches on at Tokyo 2020

It was a brave, honest and commendable interview from the gymnast and one that perhaps would have been misconceived a few years ago.

But in today’s sporting world, the topic of mental health is becoming an increasingly more recognisable issue –– one that is changing the way fans perceive elite athletes.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka is another to have vocalised her mental struggles. The world number two withdrew from both the French Open and Wimbledon, having revealed she was suffering from anxiety and bouts of depression.

Even after returning to compete in this year’s Games, she was immediately engulfed with more pressure –– perhaps the most of her career so far. The Japanese sensation was chosen to light the Olympic torch in Tokyo, but this honour carries extreme expectation.

And after losing in the third round of the competition to Markéta Vondroušová, the 23-year-old was forced to answer the exact questions she’d tried to avoid.

Addressing journalists who pressed into her mental state, Osaka admitted it had been a factor.

“Yes and no,” she said honestly. “I feel like I should be used to it by now but at the same time, I think the scale of everything is a bit hard because of the break that I took.”

Naomi Osaka vs Marketa Vondrousova at Tokyo 2020

It’s been a similar story for many other athletes at these Games. Back-to-back Olympic taekwondo gold medallist Jade Jones was seeking to become the first female Brit to win three successive golds. Yet, having lost in the round of 16, Jones confessed she’d found herself in “fear mode.”

In an emotional post-fight interview, the British fighter summed up her performance by saying: “I think I just put too much pressure on myself. Coming out was hard. I felt scared, I felt too much pressure.”

The impact of tough Tokyo restrictions at these Games are obviously making a significant difference to athletes’ wellbeing. No friends, no family and no escape from the confines of the Olympic bubble.

But the issue of mental health extends beyond the boundaries of Tokyo 2020. These are struggles countless athletes are facing and only now are more individuals beginning to open up.

As much as we urge our favourite stars to win and feel disgruntled when they don’t, ultimately, they are still just humans like the rest of us.

All those who have come forward are champions in their own right. They will always be champions. They understand pressure and deal with it better than any fan sitting watching from home could possibly could. And to open up and reveal such personal struggles is arguably more admirable than winning any gold medal. So the very least we can do is support them.

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