Analysis: For athletes of all ages and skill levels, mental health experts say communication is key

Steven Bortstein
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Imagine you’re Naomi Osaka, arguably one of the top professional female tennis players on the planet. 

Or imagine you’re Simone Biles, one of the most decorated gymnasts in American history, having won more than 30 Olympic or World Championship medals. 

You’d probably never imagine there's a dark side to being either of those two superstars. It’s hard to imagine anything bad or wrong in being either Biles or Osaka.  

Multi-millionaire, celebrity athletes, particularly those who are featured regularly on national and international television, may not have that luxury. Their every move is documented, whether it be on Centre Court at Roland Garros, or on the balance beam in Tokyo, Japan. 

And it also applies to student athletes right here at home. According to Maisie Deuel, a licensed Master of Social Work and therapist at Angel Peak Counseling in Farmington, a large number of athletes, from kids to adults, deal with some sort of emotional or social anxiety issue.

"Chances are you know someone, teenager or otherwise, who is dealing with that," Deuel said. "For too many people, self-care is minimized and social distresses are elevated, but they're far less talked about."

Simone Biles reacts after competing on the women's balance beam

The expectations that fans have of athletes and the idea that somehow they're immune to those disorders is a common mistake.

Emotional health issues, and how we as individuals choose to deal with them, vary from person to person and actually has little to nothing to do with personal wealth or fame.

"We have a tendency to be too critical of one another," Deuel said. "A professional athlete should be able to handle this. We are all trying to live up to some societal expectations." 

Osaka chose to exit the French Open earlier this year because of what she called “social anxiety issues” that made it difficult to be a part of post-match press conferences, a requirement for events such as the French Open.  

For her decision, Osaka was both hailed and assailed. Her critics called her out for being selfish or weak. Her fans called her courageous or inspiring. 

Biles, considered by many to be one of the leading candidates to win multiple gold medals at the just-concluded Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, announced shortly after the Games began that she was removing herself from several events in which she was expected to win. Osaka dropped out of the all-around, floor exercise, vault and asymmetric bars finals. 

Biles did eventually decide to participate in the balance beam competition, where she earned a bronze medal. 

In a statement after Biles’ announcement to withdraw, USA Gymnastics wrote, "After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health.  

“We wholeheartedly support her decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many." 

Again, much like Osaka, Biles was both attacked and ridiculed. Or on the other spectrum, she was praised and lauded for her courage. 

Naomi Osaka at the Tokyo Olympic Summer Games on July 27, 2021.

Medical experts have suggested that this is not a rare occurrence, since mental or emotional health difficulties do not often present the same scars as physical injuries. 

"Athletes generally are a little more confident, a little more adaptive than general people," said Dr. David B. Durham, a neuropsychiatrist affiliated with the Indian Health Service and University of New Mexico Hospitals. "But if an athlete that's been going awhile suddenly gets injured or they can't go like they had before, they can become very maladaptive and those are things that don't show up on a chart."

Different people deal with stress differently

As kids, we look up to athletes, particularly those with massive amounts of fame, fortune and glory. We laud these athletes like real-life superheroes. 

So, it’s hard for kids (and to be fair, a lot of adults) to think of LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes or Fernando Tatis, Jr. as someone who would need time away from the spotlight in order to pay attention to themselves. 

Perhaps the decisions made by both Biles and Osaka to momentarily step away shouldn't be seen as polarizing on either side, according to Durham.

“I’d suggest it wasn’t brave or courageous, but it also wasn’t selfish,” Durham said about Biles’ decision to withdraw herself from events in the Summer Games. “I’d suggest it was a decision made by a professional who knew what she was dealing with.” 

The idea that an athlete would need to step away from the spotlight in order to protect themselves seems a far-fetched concept.

"Everyone has different ways of dealing with a really stressful event," Durham said. "I don't want to have a lot of people around me days before a big event in which I have to be an active participant. I wouldn't call it a phobia for these athletes, but I think that's how they adapt is to walk away from something that may or may not maximize their performance."

With kids returning to school, and in many cases, the sports and activities associated with school, the role of the teacher or coach is pivotal in how these student athletes will perform.

There are also numerous pressure points outside the schools, particularly when it comes to kids' use of social media, which has been documented time and again to work in a negative manner for some students. 

"I would imagine if you're on the other end of that, and you're the subject of the things that are being written about, that would only cause a huge increase in any social anxiety or emotional distress," Deuel said. "It shows just how much pressure they are under and how many people just aren't understanding of what they go through."

So, what role can adults play? What can coaches do when their student athlete starts to show these signs? And what exactly should coaches be watching for?

"Communication between athletes and coaches is so important," Deuel said. "For coaches, it sometimes can be that calming voice right before they go on stage or onto the field. In order to perform athletically, you have to be sound mentally."   

Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680