When Olympic gymnast Simone Biles dropped out of the team competition at the Tokyo Games on July 27 to focus on her mental health, she set a positive example for young people around the world. The 24-year-old champion says she withdrew from the team final because she was feeling such extreme pressure to achieve that she was afraid she would be injured while competing.
“We have to protect our body and our mind,” Biles said. “There’s more to life than just gymnastics.” She and the team plan to take a mental health day before they go on to compete for the all-around title on Thursday.
The young woman who is considered the greatest gymnast of all time says she was inspired to prioritize her well-being by tennis player Naomi Osaka. Osaka withdrew from the French Open in June and also skipped Wimbledon in order to prepare mentally for the Olympics.
Simone Biles’ mental health crisis is an example of how Olympic athletes and other public figures are opening up about their emotional struggles and the pressure they feel to be perfect role models. Swimmers Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps are among the other elite athletes who have spoken out about their personal struggles with depression, anxiety, and traumatic stress.
“We seem to be moving into a time where the mental health needs of all individuals can no longer be held as an exception or afterthought,” says Dr. Danielle Roeske, PsyD, Newport Executive Director.
The Mental Health Toll of Pressure to Succeed
Most teens don’t compete at the high levels that young Olympic athletes do, but that doesn’t keep them from experiencing intense pressure to achieve and “be the best.” That might be in sports, academics, or other special interest areas, like music or dance.
These high-pressure experiences can be positive for teens: They gain skills, feel empowered, and enjoy doing something they love, and doing it well. They can also build positive connections with others—teammates, band members, coaches, or study partners. In addition, the clear goals provided by academics, sports, or musical or theatrical performance offer a stable structure that can support adolescents during a time when they are going through so much physical and emotional change.
But when teens connect their worthiness and identity entirely with their achievements, that can become a problem. Over time, the pressure and perfectionism associated with the pressure to succeed can lead to teen burnout and mental health issues. Research shows that teens who fit a perfectionist profile have significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression and body image issues, as well as lower levels of resilience and self-worth. Furthermore, teens who focus single-mindedly on one skill can lose ground in terms of social-emotional development, including the ability to form strong friendships outside of their sport or other activity.
What the Pressure to Succeed Feels Like
Here are some of the painful feelings teens often have when under intense pressure to succeed—which may help explain why Simone Biles’ mental health, as well as that of other Olympic athletes, has suffered.
- “I’m not good enough.”
- “My parents/coaches/mentors will be disappointed in me if I don’t do well.”
- “This is the only thing I’m good at, and if I fail, I have nothing.”
- “When I try to see friends or do something fun, I can’t stop thinking about the practice time I’m missing.”
- “I can’t tell anyone what I’m feeling because it will ruin their image of me.”
- “I hate myself when I lose.”
Moreover, if they give up the activity—even if that’s the best thing for their mental health—teens can end up feeling lost and without direction. A survey of former NCAA student athletes found that 44 percent of them were struggling to find purpose after leaving sports behind. That sense of emptiness and confusion can leave teens vulnerable to depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other maladaptive coping strategies.
What Simone Biles’ Mental Health Priorities Can Teach Teens
There’s nothing wrong with a teen pursuing something they love, whether or not they plan to make it a career choice. However, it’s essential for them to continue their growth and development in other areas of life as well. Parents can help teens follow Simone Biles’ mental health example and prioritize their well-being. Here are some ways to help teens reduce the pressure to achieve and find greater balance.
Help them find other interests. Exploring varied interests not only broadens a teen’s mind and skills, it may also allow them to uncover additional talents and passions they want to pursue.
Create a well-rounded schedule. Make sure teens have time to be with friends and do fun things with family as well as attending to their required activities, like academics.
Support teen (and family) self-care. That includes eating meals together whenever possible, creating set lights-out times for the family, and helping teens find ways to decompress, such as yoga, meditation, or even a simple breathing exercise.
Teach teens that perfection is not the goal. Help them recognize that their worth does not come from what they do, but rather from who they are. Praise their natural qualities, like humor or kindness, rather than the things they achieve.
Make sure teens get the help they need. Teen burnout as a result of the internal pressure to succeed can catalyze mental health issues. If a teen is showing signs of depression or anxiety, an assessment by a mental health professional is the next step.
Treatment That Helps Teens Build Self-Worth from the Inside Out
At Newport Academy, we help teens heal from mental health issues and the underlying trauma that can catalyze perfectionism and self-judgment. Teens at Newport build self-worth and well-being through authentic connections with themselves and others. They also gain the resilience, executive functioning, and social skills that help them navigate a world in which achievement is often valued over well-being. Contact us today to learn more.
Front Psychol. 2019 Sept.