The Simone Biles lesson: The greatest athletes can be as humanly fragile as any of us

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There was a moment in Simone Biles’ only vault at the Tokyo Olympics where, she said, she lost her bearings. She was going for the Amanar, points value 5.8, the third-highest points vault for women. There are pictures (see composite below) marking the moment where Biles bails out of her second twist in the Amanar, flinging her arms out rather than keeping them tucked in.

From those images, we realise that a heartbeat before she threw her arms out to slow down the twist, Biles would have seen nothing but the roof of the stadium, before her torso began its descent towards the ground, head first. It is the instant that cognition overrides the muscle memory of the twist, warning her that right there she has lost orientation. Her world has tilted on its axis. To the outsider, it is a moment of pure terror. To have Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast that there ever was, then land on her feet awkwardly and stumble is not an atypical technical error. It is a relief. She said, “I took a step back, because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured.”

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Biles’ departure from the team final and the all-round competition, where she was expected to dominate, presents sports fans with uncomfortable truths. The first is that athletic expectation can wear down even the most skilled, successful, best-trained and supported athlete. The second, that our understanding of ‘sports psychology’ and the role of sports psychologists is skewed towards performance, not well-being.

The internet is full of studies focussing on the importance of outcome-oriented mental/ psychological training: visualisation, team-building, mental conditioning, goal-setting. There is very little about the inward stability required to get there. It is now increasingly accepted that, without a sense of well-being, elite athletes can walk on shaky terrain. This is not a thumb rule for all elite athletes but it is not the rare exception either. A 2019 British Journal of Sports Medicine metastudy concluded that of current elite athletes studied mostly across Europe and North America, nearly 34% suffered from anxiety or depression.

Biles sounded the loudest alert around mental health issues permeating through the elite athlete’s world. In a conversation early this week, badminton singles player HS Prannoy said he empathised with athletes in precision sports that built around repetitive practice over limited slices of time. Like shooting, archery, weightlifting, gymnastics even, where margins swayed wildly between glory or doom, years of work disappearing into nothing due to a deviation of millimetres. Funnel those sport into events like the Olympics and the stakes and the sense of urgency can only increase.

It’s true whether you are successful like Biles or unsuccessful, like the Indian shooting team in Tokyo as of Thursday. Biles said she had wanted to compete in Tokyo for herself but “I came in and felt I was still doing it for other people… what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people… We should be out here having fun and sometimes that’s not case.”

In that context, how do Indian athletes look at their Olympics? Is sport still fun for them? Or is it a duty? To please millions? With so few individual medals going around in our Olympic history, there is no quantifying the psychological load carried by our athletes, particularly the most mentally fragile. The complicated economic and power dynamics in Indian sport mean that an Olympic medal is not just a sporting achievement.

For the majority of our athletes, it is the golden ticket to a life of financial security and personal independence from kowtowing to many kinds of masters. It is what Saikom Mirabai Chanu secured along with her silver medal. Most of our athletes compete at an Olympics with the fabric of their lives stretched out on the line. How that plays itself out in their mind, if studied, has not been shared.

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‘Important to have work-life balance’, says the former World No. 1 shooter

Pistol shooter Heena Sidhu, an expert on ESPN India’s Talking Tokyo show, said, “The more events mean to us, the more we want to do well in them and the Olympics means the most to us.” Had India won more Olympic medals in the past, would our athletes have been more secure and thus better performers? Biles has showed us there are no guarantees.

Mental health issues do not discern between disciplines either. Swimmer Michael Phelps who has won as many Olympics medals as India (28) battled depression for years, longing to create an identity for himself outside his sport. Individual sport versus team sport, then? Not necessarily, professional team sports are ridden with cases of mental illness among footballers and basketball players.

We must ask ourselves how many athletes, especially those neither as prominent or successful as Biles, have the option of pulling out of an Olympic event because they could not cope and so not perform to their best? While there was criticism of Biles, it was far less than support for the maturity of her decision. Among Indian athletes, it’s fair to say the prospect of pulling out would probably be considered a form of treason.

Across this last Olympic cycle, the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Athletes Commission found mental health issues gaining greater traction among athletes from around the world during their meetings. In May, this year the IOC released its first Mental Health In Elite Athletes Toolkit. It is a 100-page manual directed at coaches, entourages, international federations explaining best practices around handling issues of well-being of elite athletes.

“With so few individual medals going around in our Olympic history, there is no quantifying the psychological load carried by our athletes, particularly the most mentally fragile”

The Toolkit was the result of the work of the IOC’s scientific, medical and athletes’ commission along with more than 20 mental health experts. It distilled advice and information from more than 14,000 papers of scientific research around the recognition and assessment of mental health issues. It puts down steps about preventing the onset of distress, early detection and intervention and when to seek specialist mental health care.

For the first time at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics athletes have access to a helpline called Mentally Fit. It is available to athletes 24 hours a day, across 26 languages on phone, email and web, available to Olympic athletes for three months after the Games. The helpline’s counsellors will advise athletes on a range of issues: managing pressure, stress, burnout, depression, sport-home life harmony, bullying, eating disorders, dealing with injury and parenting.

Sport was not supposed to be a part of this sobering list in the heart of human darkness. After Tokyo, we will never forget that it is.



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