Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the all-around gymnastics final has been applauded by psychology experts.
The US athlete cited mental health reasons for her decision to drop out of the event and while she has faced backlash, Dr Audrey Tang, a psychologist, mental health and wellbeing expert has commended her actions.
“I applaud her for doing it. I think it’s sad for her that it came at the time when she had an opportunity to win and to show her talents,” she said.
“I see it very much as somebody who has to retire with a physical injury, there is no difference to that. If she had retired because of physical strain, no one would have batted an eyelid. Frankly, I think it is a real problem, not in terms of just athletes alone, but in terms of how we perceive mental ill health.”
The author of The Leaders Guide to Resilience feels that we can all learn from her withdrawal and that society is still nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of understanding the toll of mental health issues, in particular the media.
“In that high level of competition, you have a lot of people who have placed expectations and pressure, you’ve got public scrutiny, and we can forget how draining that can be on people,” she added.
“Within that you need to look at the way journalists perhaps approach these, not all of them but there are some who were just waiting for that story, there are some who are baiting people to say something where they can make a big deal about it and get a headline, which I think is a real shame.
“I don’t know a lot about Simone Biles’ background and her growth through gymnastics, but I do know she was one of the gymnasts in Athlete A on Netflix. One of the most amazing things she said in response to media scrutiny in the past was, ‘I don’t want to be the next so and so, I want to be the first Simone Biles.’”
Tang believes that her exit was justified but that it is disappointing that it is not seen on a par with retiring through physical strain.
“I think she made the right decision because she’s absolutely right in saying if she had continued without that concentration, without that focus that is so needed, especially at that level you need that extra focus.
“She could have injured herself, but then suddenly that would have been okay to then retire, that’s wrong. Absolutely wrong.”
She does not understand why mental health issues are not treated with the same consideration to physical strains, adding, “Just because we can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It is no different to a strain on your physical health but as its mental health, we feel the need that we have to justify it.”
The psychologist also offered her advice to Biles and other athletes who are struggling with their mental health, explaining, “Those performing at the top of their field need to keep a real check on their own mental wellbeing.
“They need to know what their boundaries are, they need to know ‘how am I feeling right now? Are the people that I’m surrounded with really enhancing my life or do I need to take a break from certain people in certain environments and atmospheres? Is what I’m doing something I’m still engaged in and something I’m still finding meaningful?'”
Former Olympic champion Chris Mears also sympathised with Biles and her withdrawal from the event.
He told BBC Sport, “I can relate to it. She feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.
“She feels like she’s failed, and she probably feels very confused and doesn’t know what’s up or down. You have to applaud it.
“After winning gold in Rio, it was so amazing. It was like all your wildest dreams coming true. Then for me, I came crashing down. I didn’t know how to process it. No-one teaches you how to process becoming an Olympic champion.”