What Simone Biles And Novak Djokovic Can Tell Us About Mental Injury
The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo has provided many stories of triumph, tragedy and incredible achievements made under considerable pressure.
However, the legacy of the Games has had a considerable effect on the perception of mental health and mental wellbeing, which has been seen in two parallel stories of exceptional sporting greats, and the different ways they handled an extreme level of psychological pressure.
American gymnast Simone Biles has won more gold medals and more overall medals in artistic gymnastics than any other competitor and is considered to be one of the best and most dominant gymnasts ever.
She has been undefeated in her field since 2013, as well as winning Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016.
However, after helping her team to reach the final, where they would eventually get a silver medal, she had already had several issues during her routines and admitted that she felt the pressure of the occasion.
After issues during the vault where she scored her career lowest score of 13.766, she left the floor and withdrew from the competition, citing mental health as a reason and highlighting an unfortunately common misconception about perceptions of mental health.
Ms Biles was suffering from a mental injury, known colloquially among gymnasts as “the twisties”. In nearly all activities, but particularly gymnastics, your body and mind compartmentalise all the different little aspects of a move into one fluid motion.
The twisties happen when one or more of these complex interlocking aspects is not perfect, which leads to a gymnast not being able to do a skill they know they can do and have done thousands of times before.
In gymnastics, this can lead to baulking or bailing, which is a hesitation that can have devastating consequences, and was what happened to Ms Biles.
What is different, however, is that she put her mental health first, inspired by how former World Number One tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon due to anxiety and depression.
Both of these sporting greats have helped to change the wider conversation surrounding mental health, highlighting that the priority, even at the highest levels of competition, is protecting your body and your mind, and taking care of any injuries to either, with the help of an online therapist.
The men’s world number one tennis player manages to highlight the dangers of the more traditional philosophy when it comes to mental health, mental injury, and how one should respond to pressure.
Mr Djokovic, who was chasing a tennis achievement known as a Golden Slam that only Steffi Graf had ever won before (which involved winning all four tennis Grand Slams and an Olympic gold medal), was quoted as saying that “pressure is a privilege” in an interview with Reuters.
He went further, claiming that without pressure there is no professional sport, which immediately drew comparisons to Ms Biles and Ms Osaka’s similar situation, with some going as far as to claim his comments were directed at them.
However, in contrast to Ms Biles talking up and assisting the US team in the finals, Mr Djokovic had a different response to the pressure he faced in his bronze medal match with Pablo Carreno Busta.
After throwing one racquet into the empty stands and smashing another against the net itself, he received a formal warning, before ultimately losing the match in three sets, storming off of the court and withdrawing from the mixed doubles bronze medal match.
Given the isolating nature of tennis, particularly in the singles game, it seems likely that Mr Djokovic was also dealing with a mental injury, but rather than step back and focus on his mental wellbeing his frustrations boiled over in a way that cannot be seen as healthy.
That the sporting world sees Ms Biles response rightfully as courageous means that the sporting world can prioritise mental health as much as it does physical health.