This year has been unprecedented in terms of the number of athletes speaking out about an issue that has long been stigmatized and swept under the rug in professional sports – mental health. In May of 2021, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after being fined $15,000 for not participating in a press conference in order to protect her mental health.
Next, right before the Olympics in July, Australian basketball player Liz Cambage withdrew from the Olympic team, citing mental health concerns and worries about playing in a bubble environment. Usually, athletes would be able to see family and friends throughout their time at
the Olympics, but this year in Tokyo, contacts were severely restricted due to the ongoing pandemic.
During the Olympics themselves, the world watched as gymnastics superstar Simone Biles had to withdraw from the team final, the individual all-around competition, and three individual apparatus finals because mental health concerns made it physically unsafe for her to perform her routines. She was eventually able to compete in the balance beam final, where she made a remarkable comeback to earn the bronze medal. Reflecting on the win, she said, “I didn’t expect to win a medal today. I just wanted to go out there and do this for me.”
Most recently, American soccer player Christen Press announced that she would not play in the U.S. Women’s National Team’s upcoming friendlies, saying in a statement on her Instagram, “I’ve made the difficult decision to take a couple months away from the game to focus on my mental health, spiritual growth, and processing grief.” The decision comes right after the announcement that Press was signed as the first player to Angel City Football Club, Los Angeles’s long-awaited professional women’s team, which will play its first season in 2022. The deal marks a homecoming for Press, who grew up in L.A., and has rarely been able to play professionally in front of her home crowd.
While some critics attempt to characterize the prioritization of mental health as a show of weakness or being a “quitter,” ultimately, these athletes have inspired people all over the world to make the entire scope of their health a priority, not just physical. By acknowledging mental health on the global stage, these women have made it not only acceptable but admirable to speak out about mental wellness and to take time off when it is needed.
Beyond that, they have demonstrated to us that they are only human. When athletes that we admire and view as invincible take time off for their mental health, it makes clear to all of their fans, and to the world, that taking time off and focusing on mental well-being is the right thing to do. It legitimizes mental health as a real health concern that affects day-to-day life, just as any physical injury would.
By making mental health part of the conversation in the sports landscape, these athletes are changing the way health is spoken and thought about with regards to sports and life in general, paving the way for overall happier and healthier athletes and people for generations to come.