Championing Mental Health, Elite Athletes Are Becoming Advocates and Investors

Image: Reuters

What’s happening: Citing mental health issues, six-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles withdrew from two events at the Tokyo Games last week. “The weight of the world” was on her shoulders, Biles wrote.

Her decision follows tennis star Naomi Osaka’s mental health-related exits this year from the Wimbledon and French Open. Penning “It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.,” for TIME magazine, Osaka divulged her battles with depression and anxiety.

Culture shift. Among other high-profile withdrawals this year, widespread support for athletes struggling with mental health highlights a shift in the sports zeitgeist.

17 years ago in Athens, rower Sally Robbins withdrew from the Olympic finals out of anxiety and was vilified and slapped by her own teammate. In sharp contrast, Simone Biles’ recent departure, while criticized by some, has met overwhelming support from both teammates and fans.

Biles joins a growing movement of activist athletes, from Michael Phelps to Kevin Love, who are taking up the torch to fight mental health stigma.

Her sponsors, too, are lauding her courage. In a statement released by Athleta, chief brand officer Kyle Andrew said: “Being the best also means knowing how to take care of yourself.”

Healthy body, healthy mind? Despite bringing in over $700B a year, the sports industry has little to no infrastructure in place to support their athletes’ mental well-being.

“There’s been a bifurcation of physical health and mental health in the world of elite sports,” says sports psychologist Michael Gervais. In his view, athletes compromise mental health for “peak performance.”

The investor athlete. Hoping to turn things around, athletes are backing mental health startups, contributing to a record $2.4B in funding last year.

  • NBA star Kevin Love, who suffered a panic attack during a game in 2017, invested in a seed round for “mental health gym” Coa last year.
  • Soccer champion Megan Rapinoe and Vikings’ Eric Kendricks invested in mental healthcare startup Real in April, contributing to its $10M Series A.
  • NFL cornerback Richard Sherman invested in brain and mental health startup Nurosene’s $7.6M IPO in June.

Takeaway: Mental health is a growing crisis, affecting over 41% of the US population and, as elite athletes like Biles and Osaka have shown, even the best athletes in the world.

As sports stars draw more attention and funding towards mental illnesses, the hope is that one day, everyone will be able to access the help they need.

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