When gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the 2020 Tokyo Games, it shocked Olympic watchers. Not only was one of the top sports stars voluntarily pulling out in the middle of the games, but it was unnerving to realize that one of the world's best athletes was facing mental health struggles just like 60 million Americans.
Biles was not alone, nor was gymnastics an exception in the world of sports. For tennis pros, Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens, understanding that mental health can impact confidence and performance, then working to boost their mental health, is the first step to being your true self both on and off the court.
"I think the biggest thing is knowing that everyone goes through it," Keys told Cheddar News. "If I feel my confidence is slipping, [I try] to find other things that help build my confidence back and it doesn't even necessarily have to be on the court."
Ahead of the 2022 U.S. Open, Keys and Stephens participated in a panel discussion on women's health hosted by the Women's Tennis Association, Hologic, WHOOP, and Modern Health, which focused on identifying health issues and being proactive in finding solutions.
"For me, I do what makes me feel good," Stephens said. "Just as a normal person not playing professional sports, I think it's similar. It's riding the wave, making sure you're feeling good, making sure you're nurturing yourself, and not being hard on yourself because the world is hard for everybody."
Like most things health-related, recognizing the early signs of trouble and seeking help are keys to protecting mental health, but finding the proper help can be difficult. Nearly half of those with mental health issues lack adequate access to resources, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Dr. Jessica Jackson, the global clinical diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging manager at Modern Health and licensed psychologist, also noted the importance of self-evaluating and asking for help when needed, tasks that can be difficult for anyone, and especially fleeting for women.
"One of the first things we can do is just acknowledge how we're feeling. Women are particularly socialized to always be OK, and we don't even acknowledge ourselves that 'I am stressed out about this,'" she said in a panel discussion. "Learn how you're feeling. We can't address a problem without knowing what we're addressing."
One of the tips Jackson provided was to download a feelings wheel in order to better assess and understand how you might be feeling. Tennis legend and 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova went pro in 1973 when she was just 16. She said that having access to information and resources on the scale that they are available today would have certainly helped more players from her era of play.
"The emotional or mental part of tennis was not a big part when I was getting coached. It was mostly technical strategy and of course fitness, but the emotional part, I didn't talk about that too much unless things were going wrong. I think the biggest thing that this mental health angle and knowledge and access [is it] can prevent things from going bad," she told Cheddar News.
Updated August 30, 2022 at 9:37 a.m. ET to correct the name of the Women's Tennis Association.