Simone Biles Withdraws from Olympics: Redefining Heroism in Sports

Dr. Serenity
April 11, 2023

Reframing Heroism in Sports: Simone Biles’ Decision to Withdraw from Olympics

Simone Biles, the most decorated U.S. female gymnast, shocked the sports world when she withdrew from multiple events at the Tokyo Olympics, citing mental health concerns. Biles prioritized her well-being and stepped down, leading to a discussion on the importance of mental health in sports. Her decision follows a growing trend of prominent athletes advocating for their mental health, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. While Biles won a bronze medal in the balance beam event, she has yet to confirm if she will compete in the remaining individual events she qualified for.

Biles Paves the Way for Mental Health Advocacy in Sports

Simone Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health and withdraw from this week’s Olympic events has sparked a conversation around the importance of parity between physical and mental health in sports. Jamey Houle, PhD, lead sports psychologist for Ohio State Athletics, explains that mental health issues can have significant consequences when left unacknowledged or untreated, and powering through them can actually make things worse. Biles’ actions set a precedent for more athletes to speak out about mental health, normalizing the conversation around mental health needs. Psychiatrist Patrice Harris, MD, commends Biles’ decision, stating that we should all prioritize our mental health, regardless of our level of participation in sports.

Biles Sheds Light on the Unique Pressures Faced by Athletes

Athletes have long received support to improve their academic and athletic performance, but not enough attention has been given to their mental health, according to Timothy Neal, director of the athletic training program at Concordia University. Despite this, athletes are not immune to mental health disorders. Research indicates that approximately one in four adults in the United States suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder in a given year. In fact, the unique stressors that elite athletes face in order to stay at the top of their game may place them at greater risk than other individuals for developing or exacerbating mental health disorders.

Contributing Factors to Mental Health Disorders in Athletes

The pressure to succeed and to be profitable are just a few of the contributing factors to mental health disorders in athletes. From an early age, athletes are pressured to be successful, to become starting players, and to earn scholarships. Later on, there are still more pressures to continue one’s success, to be profitable, and to endure constant media scrutiny once one reaches the elite level. According to Neal, all of these factors are contributors to the stressors athletes face.

Recognizing the Importance of Mental Health in Athletes

Athletic training programs are beginning to prioritize the importance of mental health for athletes. Tamara Valovich McLeod, a professor of sports medicine and the director of athletic training programs at A.T. Still University in Mesa, Arizona, explains that Brian Hainline, MD, made mental health his top priority ahead of concussions when he became the chief medical officer for the NCAA last year. In addition, the National Athletic Trainers Association and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine have both made statements urging coaches, trainers, and clinicians to prioritize athletes’ mental health. Dr. McLeod believes that collectively, progress is being made.

However, many young athletes, particularly those who are not on Division I college teams, may not have access to athletic trainers or have coaches who recognize the importance of mental health. Moreover, social media amplifies the pressure on athletes, with criticism from social media increasing tremendously, particularly among young athletes, according to Brad Donohue, a licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

The Pressure Can Be Too Much

Before the rise of social media, athletes could enjoy downtime without scrutiny. This is no longer the case. “At times, the pressure can be too much, for sure,” says Jamey Houle, PhD, a sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the lead sports psychologist for Ohio State Athletics. In order to prevent mental health disorders, it is important for athletes to receive the support they need, particularly with the unique stressors they face in their athletic careers.

Will Biles’s Decision Redefine Athletic Heroism?

Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from several gymnastics events at the Tokyo Olympics has sparked a conversation about what it means to be a hero in the athletic world. In the past, athletes were often celebrated for their perseverance and ability to “power through” injuries and emotional stress, but Biles’s decision to prioritize her mental health is being hailed as an act of bravery and self-care.

The Role of Mental Health in Athletics

According to Sharon Chirban, a clinical sports psychologist and owner of Amplify Wellness & Performance, athletes often sacrifice their well-being to meet the expectations of others. However, Biles’s decision to prioritize her own needs over the needs of her team demonstrates the importance of taking care of one’s mental health. “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong a competitor and person you really are, rather than just battle through it,” Biles said.

USA Gymnastics also praised Biles for her decision, stating that they wholeheartedly support her and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Biles’s openness about the role mental health played in her decision to withdraw from events is particularly notable given her past struggles with depression stemming from sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nasser.

The Increasing Importance of Mental Health in Athletics

Biles’s decision is part of a larger trend among top athletes, such as Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, and Kenny Stills, who are speaking openly about their mental health struggles. This increased openness is helping to dismantle the stigma around addressing mental health issues, according to Michael Lindsey, the executive director of the New York University McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research in New York City.


Biles’s decision to prioritize her mental health over competition has raised important questions about what it means to be a hero in athletics. Her openness about mental health is helping to break down stigmas and promote self-care, and is part of a larger trend of athletes speaking out about their struggles. As athletes continue to prioritize mental health, it is likely that the definition of athletic heroism will continue to evolve.

Author Dr. Serenity

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