For as long as I can remember one of the most prized attributes in professional athletes was the ability to tough it out. Play through pain. Overcome any obstacle. Do what it takes, no matter what, to get the win.
There are countless examples: Michael Jordan leading the Bulls to a playoff win while fighting a bad case of the flu, Tiger Woods winning the US Open on a broken leg, Ronnie Lott having a portion of his finger severed rather than miss a game, Kirk Gibson pinch hitting in the World Series when he could barely walk, Kerri Strug completing a gold medal vault in the Olympics with a severely injured ankle.
We expect our athletes to have grit. To set an example of self-sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. But in 2021 we are witnessing a significant paradigm shift in the sports world. A new generation of athletes, led by Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and others have opened our eyes to the negative impact the intense pressure of big-time athletics can have on one’s mental health.
Many athletes for years have suffered from depression, stress induced anxiety and other clinical mental health issues without saying anything for fear of being perceived as weak or unable to handle the pressure. However, thanks to the willingness of Osaka and the others to openly discuss their mental health we are having an invaluable, long overdue examination of the impact of the expectations we place on athletes and important insights into the very real challenges millions confront daily.
I confess to being one of those sports fans who paid little attention to an athlete’s mental health. Showing up and performing, no matter what, unless they were physically unable to play, was what mattered. Quitting because they didn’t feel up to it that day was never acceptable. Performing in their chosen arena of competition was their job. One they were paid handsomely to do.
I applaud the athletes who have opened the eyes of fans like me to the importance of confronting and talking about mental health challenges. Depression is a clinical issue that must be addressed. Athletes should not be condemned for prioritizing their mental health. We wouldn’t expect Naomi Osaka to compete at the US Open with a torn ACL, nor should we if she is suffering from a serious mental health issue.
But I think it’s important in this conversation that we don’t throw out the important example athletes have set for generations of performing through adversity. Grit matters. No matter what you do for a living, there are many days when we don’t feel mentally up to working. Nerves, anxiety, and stress are an inescapable part of life. If we don’t develop the grit and fortitude to work through those challenges, we will never reach our full potential.
As this conversation has unfolded in recent months many people have argued that unless one has experience doing back flips on a balance beam, competing in the US Open or playing professional sports they have no business commenting. The position is essentially that fans and media should be removed from the conversation.
I have a couple of thoughts here. First, and I realize this may be out of step with the times, but I still believe that part of the bargain a professional athlete makes when they decide to pursue a career in sports is that they will be subject to the judgement of fans and the media. Moreover, those people will have zero sense of what it truly takes to compete at that level. How could they? Pro athletes are literally one in a million.
As a Giant fan, if Daniel Jones throws three picks in a game I’m certainly going to boo and let him know what I think of his performance. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never thrown a pass in the NFL or understand that the interception was the result of other factors in the play beyond his control. In my view part of the job of any professional athlete who doesn’t deliver in the arena is accepting criticism, even if it’s unfair or uninformed, from fans and the media.
An athlete complaining about the judgement of fans and the media is like a maternity ward nurse complaining about crying babies. It’s an integral part of the bargain they make when they chose this line of work. Work that pays them a preposterously disproportionate amount compared to the rest of society.
Having said that, neither Daniel Jones, Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka nor any other athlete deserve to have their integrity or character attacked. That is way out of bounds. Media or fans who challenge the veracity of any athletes’ mental or physical condition cross a line that should never be crossed.
The significance of the courage Biles and others have shown on this matter is that they have started an important, long overdue conversation. We need to shed light on mental health issues to better understand and inform. But to do that we need to have the conversation, which means not shutting down differing views because the person offering them has never played professional sports.
We are learning that it’s ok to quit to address mental health issues. But when is it ok to expect athletes and those we work with to show some grit and “take the field” even when they might not feel fully up to it?
We need both values in our society: Empathy and understanding for those dealing with clinical mental health issues and celebrating self-sacrifice and grit to perform under pressure and stress. The courage of the athletes who raised this issue will be wasted if we don’t invite those with differing points of view to be part of the conversation.