The Olympic Games, being one of the most complex and most watched sporting events in the world, immediately gives a huge platform to its competitors. When athletes make choices outside of the norm, an insane flurry of media coverage follows. During this summer’s games, these reporting tendencies gave Simone Biles the power to jump start a conversation about mental health in the sports world. Biles, the most decorated and accomplished gymnast of our time, drew the world’s attention when she unexpectedly dropped out of the all-around, uneven bars, and vault finals, citing a lack of awareness in the air while competing as a result of immense stress. Biles backed her decision, saying “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just [battling] through it.”
While Biles faced accusations of being weak, selfish, and a quitter, most of the responses to her decision were positive. Many heralded her for her bravery and for prioritizing herself and her safety in an environment where the topic of mental health has long been taboo. As Biles spotlighted the importance of examining the mental effects of competition, she created room for new questions to be asked about how the competition mindset and athletes’ mental health are intricately related.
Such inquiries can be applied to student athletes, who are facing a unique interaction with their sports. After a year and a half during which many were forced to take hiatuses from play, it will be interesting to note how the return to a competitive environment impacts mental health.
Samuele Gabriele and Liam Morehouse, captains of the boys varsity water polo team and seniors in Berkeley International High School (BIHS) and Academic Choice (AC), respectively, felt that the pandemic functioned as a reset for them as athletes. “The pandemic helped us to [take] a step back and reflect on what water polo did to us, and come back to it with a healthier mindset,” Gabriele said. When the pandemic first hit, Gabriele went from 24 hours of practice a week to purely Zoom workouts, then phased back into distanced swim training with lane lines. Now, the Berkeley High School (BHS) team has returned to full-contact practices. Morehouse added, “I think having the time away was actually pretty positive; when I came back to the sport, I was in a better position to be more competitive and apply myself more, because I knew more what I wanted and how to deal with things.”
Of the challenge of water polo’s intensity, Gabriele said, “It’s basically all your life, and sometimes people do get burnt out, because they literally know every single tile of the pool they swim.” However, the excitement of the new season and an in-person school year overrides concerns about burnout for Gabriele and Morehouse at the moment. “I’m very grateful to be back, to be at a position in the pandemic where we’re allowed to all be together in the pool and swim, pass, and compete with other teams. I really missed it,” said Morehouse.
Charlotte Dierks, a senior in AC and player on the girls varsity soccer team, similarly said her feelings on the return are overall positive. At the beginning of the pandemic, her soccer playing was reduced to individual training and Zoom workouts. As time went on and players began to get vaccinated, Dierks went back to more and more normal play. “I love soccer and it helps me stay productive because I get in a rhythm of school, soccer, homework. I’ve noticed that without soccer in my life, I am not sure what to do with myself,” Dierks said. She did acknowledge that the competitive aspects of a team-sport environment can have downsides. “Mental health is rarely talked about in sports. Although I love my sport and where I am with it now, there were definitely parts where it was hard to manage. Sometimes it can be a very toxic environment,” Dierks added.
Dierks said, “Seeing that pro athletes are able to take a mental health break, high schoolers may then feel more comfortable doing the same.” She also pointed out, “Another aspect, though, is that the level of the sport is completely different, so some people may feel that since it isn’t as intense as pro athletes, their feelings aren’t as valid.” Because of this obvious separation between high school and professional athletes, Dierks said that more directly related factors, like coaches and teammates, are a larger determinant in making players feel like they can talk about and prioritize mental health. Thus, as the school year unfolds, and the novelty wears off, teams must prioritize creating environments prepared to address the mental toll constant competition can take on busy students and young athletes.