Local psychologist weighs in on Simone Biles' decision to withdraw from Olympic competitions

Simone Biles
Posted at 3:47 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 17:10:56-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Simone Biles, aside from being premiere athletes with hundreds of medals and titles between them, struggle with their mental health.

For Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, it nearly drove him to suicide.

“Recognizing mental health is important,” said Sports Psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Peal.

The most common forms of mental illness athletes deal with are eating disorders, burnout, depression and anxiety, or stress, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Stress is the reason Biles decided to withdraw from the Olympic team and all-around competitions.

“I was just like shaking, could barely nap. I never felt like this going into a competition before,” she said, during a press conference Tuesday.

Biles talked it over with the team and coach and decided she needed to withdraw because she wasn’t in the right “mental space” to perform.

“Mental health is really important,” she said.

According to data from the non-profit organization Athletes For Hope, 46.6 million Americans are battling some form of mental illness and 35% are elite athletes.

“Just 35%? I would question that, that’s low,” said Brooke Bennett.

Tampa Bay native and swimmer Brooke Bennett is a three-time Olympic Gold Medalist. She said she has dealt with her own mental challenges while competing at that level during her teens and early 20s.

“There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t express to my parents. I would go through the motions and say I was ok,” she said. “I would compartmentalize and deal.”

She said the pressure she was under 20 years ago was a lot different than what athletes are dealing with now.

“It’s at a whole other level. The biggest difference between my personal experience and today’s athletes, there was no social media," she said.

Sports psychologists agree. Other factors, according to them, include schoolwork, the pressure to not want to let America down, and personal trauma.

Dr. Peal said all of that can take a toll and get into an athlete's mind at the worst time, and “it can have an impact on their performance.”

“Mental is a big part. If you feel like your mind is off, it’s going to be tough for someone like Simone to perform,” he said. “I think Simone made the best choice for her, and the team.”

Several athletes, including Bennett, have spoken out in support of Biles’ decision. They’ve also thanked her for showing young athletes how important their mental health is.

“This is positive,” Bennett said. “This should be resonating with young athletes coming up. This should be resonating with parents.”

Bennett said this will also help her with her boys if they decide to play a sport or competitively.

For athletes struggling with mental illness, Dr. Peal said one of the things he works on with his patients is “grounding and being present in the moment.” They do a number of exercises focusing on their senses, “because we want them out of the back of their brain.”

“You don’t want to be worrying about the future, thinking about how you messed up in the past,” he said. “You perform now, and that’s where your focus should be.”