When Simone Biles this week stepped back from the Olympic stage, youth coaches around the region quickly recognized an opportunity to drive home what they’ve been telling young athletes for years: in competitive sports, mental health is just as important as physical fitness.
Biles’s withdrawal from at least two key events has added to a growing conversation about all-around wellbeing in a field where even the youngest athletes often value winning above all else. Coaches and trainers say they often battle that misconception as they try to help players learn and have fun.
So the image of a breakout star walking off the world’s largest stage, while disappointing to those who love to watch Biles compete, was also an opportunity for reflection.
“It can happen to everybody, even [if] you are the greatest in the world,” Mihai Brestyan, a former USA Gymnastics national coach who runs a gym in Burlington, said of Biles’s acknowledgment that mental strain played a role in her decision.
Brestyan, who trained Olympians such as Needham’s Aly Raisman and Winchester’s Alicia Sacramone, said he works with athletes from the time they first step into his gym to identify their weaknesses and help them through these “moments of crisis.” His club has won 21 world championships and Olympic medals, according to their website.
Brestyan said there is “amazing” pressure to win, especially with his athletes who compete at a high level.
“You want to please everybody, but we are also normal human beings,” he said. “Sometimes you have that fear — what happen[s] if I don’t?”
Even coaches who often work with beginners say they see plenty of students who put too much emotional pressure on themselves, which can make it harder to succeed.
Roni Mansur, director of coaching with Cambridge Youth Soccer, said his coaches try to reduce athlete stress by showing that even highly skilled athletes can fail on the field.
“I still remember from my days, missing an open goal that would have won a very important game, and I still replay that in my head,” he said.
Mansur says he tells students that “this happens to everyone.” he added — even the pros.
“It’s just about learning from it and picking yourself up and moving on and for your team to be supportive.”
Biles decided to take a step away from Tuesday’s women’s gymnastics team finals, citing mental strain. She announced Wednesday that she would also not be competing in the all-around individual finals on Thursday. She will be evaluated daily to determine whether she will compete in the individual event finals next week, according to a statement from USA Gymnastics.
Her decision came almost two months after tennis champion Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open for mental health reasons. In an Instagram post, Osaka said she has suffered from depression and anxiety, especially when speaking to the media.
Biles’s moves have also drawn support from athletes including Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated Olympian of all time and came out publicly in 2018 about his challenges with depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Imani Deal, program director at All Dorchester Sports & Leadership, which offers programs including baseball, basketball, soccer, and softball, said Biles showed the athletes in their organization that they should take care of their mental health.
“It sets a great example for our young athletes because a lot of them want to go pro, and to see someone pro and someone that looks like them saying I need to take time for myself,” she said.
Self-care and mental health are also important at high levels of competition, where athletes can injure themselves if they lose focus or push themselves too hard.
Biles said after her initial withdrawal that she “didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured.”
Brestyan said he noticed that Biles was not as sharp as normal during the first few days of the Olympics. And it can be dangerous to compete when you’re not 100 percent, he said.
“The way I work, personally, I try to lower the expectation through the parents from the athletes in the beginning until they get high level enough and smart enough to be able to talk with them, and to manage mentally the effort through the practice into the competition,” he said.