IN FOCUS: Elite athletes and the mental game

In Focus

SALT LAKE CITY (AP/ABC4) – For decades, they were told to shake it off or toughen up — to set aside the doubt, or the demons, and focus on the task at hand: winning. Dominating. Getting it done. For years, Simone Biles was one of the very best at that. Suddenly — to some, shockingly — she decided she wasn’t in the right headspace.

By pulling on her white sweat suit in the middle of Tuesday night’s Olympic gymnastics meet, and by doing it with a gold medal hanging in the balance, Biles might very well have redefined the mental health discussion that’s been coursing through sports for the past year. She stepped back, assessed the situation and realized it would not be healthy to keep going. On Wednesday, she pulled out of the all-around competition to focus on her mental well-being.

Michael Phelps, winner of a record 23 gold medals and now retired, has long been open about his own mental health struggles. Phelps has said he contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics while wracked with depression. Now an analyst for NBC’s swimming coverage, he said watching Biles struggle “broke my heart.”

Biles joins some other high-profile athletes in the Olympic space — overwhelmingly females — who have been talking openly about a topic that had been taboo in sports for seemingly forever. Tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, never went to Wimbledon and, after her early exit in Tokyo this week, conceded that the Olympic cauldron was a bit too much to handle.

The International Olympic Committee, aware of the struggles young athletes face, increased its mental health resources ahead of the Tokyo Games. Psychologists and psychiatrists are onsite in the Olympic village and established a “Mentally Fit Helpline” as a confidential health support service available before, during and for three months after the Games.

Missy Marlowe, former University of Utah gymnast, joined ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen on the CW30 News at 7 p.m. for an IN FOCUS discussion. She competed at the 1988 Olympics and was a 12-time All-American and seven-time NCAA National Champion. Marlowe shared the mental health challenges she experienced due to the pressures of competition, her thoughts on Biles withdrawing from the Tokyo Games, and what it means for a gymnast to experience the “twisties.”

France A. Davis II is a psychiatry physician assistant and former elite track and field athlete. He was a two-time East conference champion, two-time NCAA championship qualifier, and 2000 Olympic trials qualifier while at Georgetown University. Davis discussed the mental health challenges he faced due to the pressures of competition, how expectations on athletes can impact their mental health, the other side of an athlete such as life stressors, the stigma of seeking treatment and how that prevents some athletes from seeking help, his transition out of sports, and the professional career he’s pursuing now.

Dr. Nicole Detling is mental performance coach and owner of Headstrong Consulting, LLC. She talked about the importance of the mental game, what she does to help athletes, the unique challenges that Olympic athletes face compared to other top-level athletes, the distinction between mental health and mental performance, and her thoughts about Biles’ withdrawal from the Olympics.

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Marlowe, Davis, and Dr. Detling, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.

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