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Mental health and sport – lessons from Simone Biles

On the 27th of July 2021, Simone Biles sent shockwaves through the sporting world, announcing that she would not be competing in the artistic gymnastics women’s team final. Battling with her mental health, Simone cited the sheer pressure put on her as one of the reasons she withdrew from the competition. Almost instantaneously, and before the event even concluded, she was the top story across all major news platforms. CNN, the BBC, and the New York Times had articles about her withdrawal as their top story within minutes of the official announcement. In a world in the throes of a pandemic, Simone Biles’ withdrawal from competition at the Olympics was still the top news story within minutes of her putting on her tracksuit. This serves to provide the clearest indication of exactly how much pressure the modern athlete is under to perform at the top level.

Speaking on Simone Biles bowing out of the competition, Michael Phelps said, “We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders…, and all these expectations are being thrown on us”. He also noted how he hoped this would spark a larger conversation in sports, one that has typically been neglected around athletes and the importance of their mental health.

What is currently being done? 

The current standard for supporting athletes’ mental health has been centred largely on building literacy and awareness around mental illness amongst athletes. While this is extremely necessary, it falls short in addressing elite athletes’ varied mental health requirements. An athlete that is competing at the highest level will not only experience mental health concerns if they are fighting a mental illness. The sheer pressure that is placed on the shoulders of the modern athlete is enough to raise mental health concerns, as this often results in sub-clinical presentations of a vast number of threats to mental health. To date, there are extremely limited published frameworks for how best to support the mental health needs of the elite athlete. While the Olympic Committee has drafted a statement that emphasises the need to build awareness and increase help-seeking behaviour around mental health concerns, this is near pointless if there are no systems that cater to an athlete’s specific needs.

Simone Biles and the “Twisties”

In Tokyo, Simone Biles found herself experiencing a phenomenon known as the “twisties”, where gymnasts feel a loss of control over their body mid-trick and lose a sense of where they are in the air. To this point, Simone Biles said on Instagram, “Sometimes I can’t even fathom twisting… I seriously cannot comprehend how to twist.” For a professional gymnast, and arguably the greatest one of all time to “not have your mind and body in sync”, as she eloquently puts it, is a terrifying and unfamiliar experience. This begs the question, what is happening inside the body of a gymnast who is experiencing the twisties?

Similarly to the more common “yips”, the twisties are a moment where, without warning, the gymnast’s brain and body lose connection, and muscle memory fails. Through their countless hours of training, gymnasts literally rewire their brains to perform the complex movements you see at competition. In attempting to understand the twisties, it is first important to understand how gymnasts perform these tricks at all.

Balance during complex motions requires incredibly fast, real-time comparisons between sensory input (what the gymnast can see, hear, and feel) and the brain’s expectation of the sensory input. The brain takes all the information in and develops an “internal model” of what the movement should feel like, based on past experiences. Through advanced practice, professional gymnasts develop an extremely sophisticated “internal model” of their movements, which allows them to make micro-adjustments in milliseconds and nail complex motions even while on a balance beam. This training allows the skill to become so well learned that it is nearly automatic, and there is very little active thought involved in the movement; essentially, elite gymnasts almost never think their way through the flips.

With this being said, there is one main catalyst that can cause the unravelling of years of training – pressure. When the gymnast is under a lot of pressure, they may try to take more conscious control of their motions (which are normally engrained in muscle memory). This process often leads to errors, and in this case, the twisties. According to Prof Moran-Miller of Stanford, under the experience of increased stress (physiological and psychological), the gymnast tries to consciously control movements that were previously automatic, leading to motions that are less fluid and more error-prone. As addressed in the July issue of HQ Magazine, there is a sweet spot for stress, where it can prove helpful, but too much stress can interfere with the brain’s ability to initiate movements that it has already learned.

The pressure the modern day athlete feels is almost unimaginable, and this is only compounded when they are regarded as one of the greatest of all time.

 Lessons from the Olympic athletes

The Olympics provided arguably the most influential example of the importance of mental health in sport. The new brand of athlete is different, mental health is a priority, and the “win at all costs” mindset is being phased out because it is no longer proving beneficial. Athletes at this Olympic Games recognised their own greatness while still sharing in the victory of others. If you haven’t yet, you must go watch the video of how Tatjana Schoenmaker’s competitors celebrated her record-breaking win. Athletes are prioritising their mental health; a perfect example of this is Simone Biles not bowing to the pressure to perform or Tom Daley knitting between dives. If the top athletes in the world recognise the importance of mental health and how it positively improves their performance, so should you. 

Mental health and riding

Prioritising your physical and mental health isn’t selfish; it is entirely necessary to perform at your best. Understanding the conditions that enhance your performance is a vital aspect of modern sport. Preparing for the pressure, building confidence, and enhancing the joy you get from competing are of the utmost importance in attempting to have a long and successful career. In the world of equestrian sports, you are not only responsible for your own physical and mental health but also that of your horse. If you take one lesson from the 2020 Olympic Games and Simone Biles, it should be to prioritise the physical and mental well-being of both you and your horse ahead of everything else.

Riders are particularly prone to mental health problems. This is mainly due to the following unique aspects of the sport that differentiate it from others. Firstly, social comparison, particularly through social media, is rife. Social media often provides a distorted view of the achievements of those around you; these expectations for performance are then turned inward and can cause feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Secondly, in any equestrian discipline, winning is a rare feat. As an equestrian, you get beaten a lot, and this can stir up feelings of inadequacy. If this or social media comparison is something with which you struggle, make an active effort to tie your success not to rosettes or others’ achievements but to personally set goals. Thirdly, the pressure in equestrian sports is immense, as competitors and spectators watch your round, and you may watch theirs. A small community has the tendency to put you under pressure. It’s a lot easier to perform in front of 1000 people you don’t know and who don’t know you than it is to perform in front of 50 people with whom you are intimately acquainted. In this regard, it is best to train yourself to only focus on the matter at hand (a good technique for this is mindfulness, which will be discussed in later issues).

The importance of mental health cannot be overstated. While there are select things you can do to prioritise your well-being, if you find yourself continually struggling, reach out to a colleague or get professional help. If you were ill, you would see a doctor, so treat your mind with the same kindness.