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Prioritizing Our Mental Health

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

I love the Olympics and have been watching the Games with gratitude, curiosity, and concern. It feels weird that they are taking place a year late, with no fans, and with Covid on the rise in Tokyo, here in the US, and around the world.

Simone Biles withdrawing from the competition breaks my heart and makes me proud at the same time. What a courageous act on her part.

I cannot imagine the pressure on her. And, for her to take this bold step, she must be in a lot of mental and emotional distress right now. My heart goes out to her, and I hope she is okay. I also hope she is getting the love and support she needs right now.

I feel sad, selfishly, that we don’t get to see her compete and share her incredible talent with the world on this huge stage…and I feel grateful and proud of her for taking care of herself…and opening up an even bigger conversation about the importance of mental health.

The pandemic has created a mental health crisis in our world, and even though we’re talking about it more, it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface.

Simone Biles is an international superstar, considered by most to be the greatest gymnast of all time. She’s been in the public eye for many years. She performed at an historically high level five years ago in the Olympics. This is not about her ability able to handle the pressure of the moment…this is about her needing to care for herself mentally and emotionally.

With the delay in the Olympics, the stress of Covid, the lack of fans, the lack of family and friends there for the athletes, and everything that has happened to her personally and in the world over the past 18 months, it makes total sense to me that she would be impacted mentally in a significant way. She also revealed publicly that she was a victim of sexual assault by Larry Nasser, along with so many other young women connected to USA gymnastics.

My heart breaks for her and all of the other victims of the unconscionable assault by this man (and all victims of sexual assault). We must do a better job of addressing this type of abuse and trauma.

Although I’ve never experienced abuse of this kind and I’ve also never competed on a world stage with the pressure and expectation of someone like Simone, I did spend 18 of the first 25 years of my life as a competitive athlete.

As a 20-year-old baseball player at Stanford University, I got severely depressed. This happened right at the start of the season my junior year, when I was eligible for the Major League draft. I was one of the key pitchers on our team, which was ranked #1 in the country and ultimately made it to the College World Series.

The pressure and expectation I was dealing with at that time and throughout the next few years of my short pro baseball career and subsequent injury and surgeries, caused a great deal of mental and emotional pain and distress for me.

I was in and out of episodes of depression over those years, on medication, and in therapy. At times I felt lost, scared, and like I let a lot of people down, including myself.

Hardly any athletes were talking about mental health publicly at the time (1994 to 1999). I thought I was weird, flawed, and weak. I’m so grateful for the love and support I received from some friends, family members, and professionals. I was thankfully able to navigate that difficult time, learn a lot about myself, and ultimately heal and grow.

Sports are amazing. I feel fortunate to have been an athlete for so many years. I learned a ton, made lots of great friends, and experienced some wonderful things. I haven’t played competitively since 1997, and I still think of myself as an athlete and have so much gratitude for the opportunities I got from sports.

I’ve also remained an avid sports fan throughout my life and love watching baseball, basketball, the Olympics, and so many other sports.

I'm keenly aware of the fact that in our culture we put so much pressure on athletes and there is a lot of toxic energy around sports. Our obsession with winning and our harsh criticism of failure, mistakes, and losing, can make it very scary for many of us athletes to compete without feeling an intense burden and, at times, debilitating pressure.

Most athletes start out competing in our respective sports because they’re fun, we love the game, and it’s an avenue for friendship, growth, teamwork, and accomplishment, among other things.

If you happen to be blessed with some God-given talent, have a supportive family and community, and can leverage these things to experience athletic success for yourself…you can create huge opportunities through sports. I’m lucky to have been able to do this myself.

This success, however, can be both a blessing and a curse. Those of us who are lucky enough to excel in sports often get defined by it. I was “Mike the baseball player” for much of my life from the age of 7 until I finally retired on my 25th birthday in 1999.

Even as a 47-year-old man today, I still think of myself at times as “Mike the baseball player,” for better or worse. And for all the sports stars like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Steph Curry, Tom Brady, and others…there are literally millions of competitive athletes who never have fame or fortune in our respective sports…yet can be defined by them just as much.

I think we need to take a step back, think about and talk about these things more authentically. Mental health is as important (and sometimes more important) than physical health. It’s just way less understood.

If Simone Biles had broken her leg on that vault, the whole world would have understood, felt empathy for her, and clearly realized she could no longer compete in these Olympic Games.

Her choosing to bow out of the competition to take care of her mental health is more complicated and confusing for many reasons, but just as important…and incredibly courageous.

My heart is with her and all athletes (and humans) who are struggling with mental health challenges.

The pandemic has been and continues to be really hard for many of us mentally and emotionally. No one, not even the greatest gymnast of all time, is immune from this.

We truly are all in this thing together.

How is your mental health these days? What support do you need right now? Feel free to leave a comment or question below, or on my blog.


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