This conversation about mental health is long overdue–not just among athletes, but among us all. Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, has been open about his struggles with depression and anxiety as well as the mental health challenges elite athletes face when they retire. Inspired by Phelps, Biles, Osaka and other athletes, such as track star Noah Lyles, who are advancing this important narrative, here are three messages leaders in our industry can embrace to play our part.
Mental health is physical health
If Biles had withdrawn from the Games due to a physical injury, her reasoning would have been better understood and accepted. Her decision to prioritize her mental health, however, sparked criticism among people who lack understanding. Elite athletes have always recognized the connection between mental health and physical performance. It’s time for employers in our field to recognize the symbiotic relationship between mental and physical health, and to stop distinguishing between them in our response to colleagues and employees who make courageous disclosures like the one Biles made in Tokyo.
Hold space for the mental health discussion
Biles may not have performed exactly the way the world expected her to in Tokyo, but she ended up contributing something much more important: she showed us all how to speak up about our mental health with honesty and vulnerability. Her teammates and other athletes at the Olympics held space for her decision and story—supporting her, protecting her, and validating what she was experiencing. We can learn from this in our own industry, known for its fast pace, high stress and pressures to perform. When someone on our team or at our company discloses that they’re struggling with a mental health issue, let’s believe them and behave in a way that gives them permission to prioritize it just as we would if they had disclosed a physical condition.
Look beyond the moment
What might feel or look like an acute mental health situation brought on by circumstance—the pressures of the Olympics in this case—is more often part of a lifelong journey. Biles returned to competition and won a bronze medal on the balance beam, but that doesn’t mean her need to prioritize her mental health is no longer necessary. The work continues, likely for her and for all of us as individuals and as leaders. When we think of a healthy lifestyle, we think of eating right, exercising, and sleeping well, all in the interest of a healthy body. Beyond these specific moments in which mental health is in the spotlight, we must adopt company and team cultures in which the prioritization of mental health is an integral part of how we define the healthy lifestyle we aspire to live through every stage of our lives. It’s not enough to simply provide mental health resources to our teams; we have to make it okay—and in fact admirable—to access them proactively and routinely, not just when a crisis point occurs.
Participation in sports like swimming, gymnastics and track and field will likely surge after these Olympics. It’s part of the well-established, inspirational cycle of the Games. But I hope the inspirational cycle of this Olympic experience also ushers in a different kind of surge that will benefit us all, whether athlete or not—an increase in informed and compassionate dialogue about mental health that strengthens our ability to prioritize it in and out of the spotlight, and in and out of the workplace.