How Are Mental Health and Physical Health Linked? SF Investigates

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Simone Biles of Team United States competes in the Women's Balance Beam Final on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Even as one of the least watched Olympics in recent history, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are not without major headlines – most of which involve athletes and mental health. Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was just granted a humanitarian visa from Poland after she approached Japanese police for protection from Belarus team officials. 

A barrier of ignorance comes into play when it comes to the health and wellness of elite level athletes.

According to Tsimanouskaya, they tried to force her onto a plane home to Belarus because she had publicly criticized her coaches for entering her into the 4×400 meter relay. As a race that she had never trained for, Tsimanouskaya was uncomfortable with competing. But Belarusian Olympic Committee retorted, saying they had pulled her from the Olympics because of her “emotional and psychological state”, despite the fact that the international community was already backing the athlete. In an effort to establish a clear boundary with her coaches, she was treated as a mental case. Although the athlete was in a far more nuanced type of distress entirely, the Belarusian Olympic Committee tried to paint her as mentally unfit to compete, which prompts the question: what do mental fitness and physical fitness have to do with one another?

Recently, one of the world’s most formidable athletes and the most decorated gymnast in history, Simone Biles, came under public scrutiny after she backed out of Olympic competition, citing mental health reasons. When the average person thinks about mental health problems, they often think of anxiety and depression as the most common issues. A barrier of ignorance comes into play when it comes to the health and wellness of elite level athletes, with many assuming that mental health issues are just something they should “get over” or “push through” in order to allow their body and training to take over. 

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 25: Simone Biles of Team United States competes on balance beam on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images)
Simone Biles | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Biles quieted the public outrage when she posted a video of herself attempting a double-twisting double somersault dismount during training. Each time she tried the difficult maneuver, she would fall from the uneven bars into a foam pit below. Imagine trying that without the safety of a soft cushion during actual competition, with the clock ticking and the world watching. Uncertainty and even fear come into play when it comes to complicated gymnastic dismounts, so much so that gymnasts have even given the moment a name: “twisties”. Twisties occur when they are disoriented during their sequences due to height, balance, and difficulty of steps.

“For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit, my mind and body are simply not in sync as you can see here,” she responded. “I don’t think you realise how dangerous this is on a hard/competition surface. Nor do I have to explain why I put health first.”

Other athletes, who know the rigours of training, were divided on Biles’ decision. Her teammates backed her with roaring support, while others, like Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic were critical. “Pressure is a privilege, my friend,” Djokovic told a reporter in response to questions about his mental health in the wake of Biles’ decision. “If you are aiming to be at the top of the game you better start learning how to deal with pressure and how to cope with those moments – on the court but also off the court.” However, when faced with the self-same pressures he had talked about, Djokovic crumbled in a display of rage and toxic masculinity after losing to Spain’s Pablo Carreño Busta in a bronze-medal Olympic tennis match.

Sports writer Kavitha Davidson summarized the hypocrisy of the backlash against Biles succinctly in a tweet, saying, “Simone Biles won nationals w/broken toes in both feet, worlds w/a kidney stone, and has carried the burden of being a face of sexual assault survivors as a national institution failed to support them. Half of y’all yelling about “toughness” can’t handle wearing a mask in Wegman’s”.

However, the majority of the responses were positive, causing Biles to realize a critical fact, “the outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before. 🤍” Despite her setback, Biles returned to the Olympic competition, and landed the bronze on the balance beam. 

Over the years, we’ve seen many examples of mental health coming into play for athletes of every level of skill and expertise. Tennis star Naomi Osaka sparked a similar backlash to Biles after she withdrew from the French Open in June, citing struggles with mental health. Former Chicago Bulls cheerleader Erika J. Kendrick opened up about her battle with bipolar disorder during her tenure with the team, which led her to launching her Happy Mental Fitness tour for middle school children, as well as a mental fitness workbook entitled Who Moved My Happy?. 

Meanwhile, Michael Phelps might be the best competitive swimmer the world has ever seen, but he too struggled with mental health issues that went untreated, lead to a mental health spiral, and eventually landed him in rehab. His recovery since has made him a champion of mental health issues for young people through the Michael Phelps Foundation “IM” program.

NBA star Kevin Love penned a powerful essay in The Players’ Tribune in 2018 after experiencing a panic attack on the court. In the essay, he opened up about his battles with anxiety and depression, as well as the culture of toxic masculinity that contributed to his issues. He later went on to establish the Kevin Love Fund, which is “dedicated to inspiring people to live their healthiest lives while providing the tools to achieve physical and emotional well-being”.  

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Naomi Osaka of Team Japan covers her ears before match point during her Women's Singles Third Round match against Marketa Vondrousova of Team Czech Republic on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Tennis Park on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Further evidence of this mounting social discussion between mental and physical health has been supplied in recent years by eye-opening documentaries like Netflix’s Cheer (2020), HBO’s The Weight of Gold (2020), and NBC SportsHeadstrong (2019). As this conversation advances and the public chimes in with their unresearched (or barely researched) opinions via social media, it’s clear that there needs to be a stronger understanding of the link between mental and physical health.

It’s clear that there needs to be a stronger understanding of the link between mental and physical health.

Many of us have seen doctors, wellness coaches, and health experts recommend physical exercise as a means of coping with mental health issues. For those experiencing anxiety and depression, exercise releases endorphins (or “happy” chemicals) in your brain, leading to an overall feeling of joy or positivity. However, when it comes to athletes that train and operate at an elite level of skill and fitness in the world of professional sports, their superlative physical abilities have little to do with moderate exercise for mental health, and everything to do with precision, perfection, and beating established records. Couple that with intense fitness and diet regimens, unrelenting pressure from coaches and teammates, and living in the public eye, a recipe for mental health crisis looms large. 

With intense fitness and diet regimens, unrelenting pressure from coaches and teammates, and living in the public eye, a recipe for mental health crisis looms large. 

It is harmful to assume that mental health is a separate issue, and ignorant to treat psychological pressure as a foregone conclusion that you have to deal with or get over. Furthermore, it’s straight up dangerous to insist that athletes continue to compete when they are having a mental health crisis. If Biles, during her bout of “twisties”, had competed anyway, she could have easily miscalculated her dismount and experienced a career-ending injury. In fact, many athletes who have pushed through mental crises have done just that. There is shame and stigma that comes with mental health issues, especially when the world has come to expect flawless execution of skills from these athletes, which can trigger a secretive and withdrawn response. Now more than ever, mental health should remain a topic of conversation in society as people at every level struggle to be heard and understood.

 Truly, when it comes to the relationship between mental and physical health, they are inextricably intertwined. The body might be capable, but it cannot execute its capabilities without the trigger of a healthy mind. In the words of Simone Biles, “Physical health is mental health.” You cannot have the health of one without the other; the body, mind, and spirit are a whole package.

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