The Tokyo Olympics, which wrapped up earlier this month, were defined in part by one athlete’s choice not to play.
When gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the all-around competition, it set off a worldwide conversation about mental health that included high-profile messages of sympathy from celebrities and athletes, among them tennis legend Billie Jean King. But it also unleashed a wave of vitriol on social media.
In a new interview, King praised athletes like Biles for speaking out on mental health and using their social media platforms to do it. But she also cautioned today’s generation of athletes to be careful about the potentially damaging mental health effects of social media.
“This is where they have to have discipline,” says King, who recently published a memoir entitled “All In.” “This is where they have to decide. It’s really important to not take anything personally. I try to teach that when I coach, and it really works, if you can do it.
“What I find with most athletes, they think the whole world knows what’s going on about them — and they don’t,” she adds. “Every human being has their own trials and tribulations, and good and tough times.”
“[Athletes] need to think that the world’s a lot bigger than that,” she says.
In comments on Instagram after she withdrew, Biles cited the mental health effects caused by the “pressure” of the Olympics, saying it feels like “I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” She did not specifically mention social media.
A study released by the University of Toronto earlier this month suggests that elite athletes struggle with mental health issues at a higher rate than non-athletes. According to the study, as many as 41.4% of Canadian national team athletes reached the threshold for a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder; as opposed to roughly 10% of the Canadian population who report such issues.
Top athletes like tennis player Naomi Osaka and former swimmer Michael Phelps have also spoken out recently about their mental health struggles. Phelps, who won 23 gold medals as an Olympic swimmer, has spoken candidly about his struggle with depression, which he says included suicidal thoughts in the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics.
Meanwhile, Osaka, the world’s third-ranked women’s tennis player, quit the French Open in May with an explanation on Instagram about her mental health challenges that has garnered more than 865,000 likes. Her withdrawal from the tournament followed her refusal to speak with the media — an experience she says causes her “huge waves of anxiety.”
King, who won 39 grand slam titles during her tennis career and led the fight for pay equity in the sport during the 1960s and ’70s, chairs the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative. The organization, which boasts a star-studded advisory board that features Venus and Serena Williams, aims to advance equal representation and pay in the workplace.
King empathized with athletes’ desire to be open about their emotional lives, but she said interacting with the media is an important part of their job.
“The players need to understand the business,” she says. “They need to understand that it is important to talk to the media.”
“I think it’s good that Naomi [Osaka] and Simone [Biles] are talking about how they’re feeling, which I think is very important,” she adds. “But I knew as a professional athlete, my job was to go in and talk to the media after every single day, every single match.”
“Because we needed them — they told our story,” she says. “I still think we need that. I think we need everything — not just social media, not just traditional media.”
Speaking to Yahoo Finance, King said she believes some athletes do not understand the direct relationship between their media presence and their financial success.
“The reason athletes are making so much more money today is because of all these elements,” she says. “But I’m not sure that athletes understand that.”
“The more they understand, I think they’ll be more comfortable,” she adds.
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