As the parent of a varsity high school athlete who has also struggled with mental health issues, I was struck by Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympic competition and the issues it highlights. I decided to reach out to my friend, Mother’s Quest member, and mental performance consultant Lisa Bonta Sumii LCSW, CSW, for her thoughts. Even though our children may not all be “elite athletes,” there are lessons we can take away from these seven points Lisa offers, inspired by Simone Bile’s decision to prioritize her well-being.
Parenting a teen is an experience that is different than parenting at any other time in a child’s life – identities are emerging, peer relationships become a priority, teens push against the authority of the parent(s), brains aren’t fully developed yet, while teens are making meaningful decisions on a daily basis. If that teenager happens to be an elite athlete, it adds an additional dimension to the parenting experience. With Olympic Gymnast Simone Biles in the news for prioritizing her mental health, we’re reminded that elite athletes are humans. Athletes at this level sacrifice so much for the love of their sport, the opportunity to compete, and in Simone’s case, the chance to represent her country on the world’s biggest stage. Her journey is an inspiring one that highlights some very important points that every parent could benefit from.
- Mental health is just as important as physical health– there continues to be a lack of accurate information to differentiate mental health and mental illness. We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health. To stay mentally healthy, we must prevent, assess, and treat, just like we do to stay physically healthy. Mental health falls on a continuum and can be impacted by various forms of stress and pressures.
- The impact on mental health does not discriminate– you can be the GOAT in your sport (just like Simone Biles,) have all the gold medals in the world, have the most coveted sponsors, have popularity, be “rich and famous” and still endure the effect that pressure, sexual abuse, racial injustice, and the pandemic have on your mental health.
- Excellence vs. Perfection– supporting our kids to strive for excellence in their sport, not perfection, can keep the enjoyment and feelings of success high. If Simone continued to push, even though she didn’t feel completely herself, she could have seriously injured herself which could have led to long-lasting negative effects beyond the Olympic Games. On this day, her pursuit of excellence included protecting her mental health. Let’s commit to this every day!
- Pressures come in many forms– from our coaches, from the public, from the media, from within, and in this day and age- from social media. Today’s elite athletes deal with a world where their whole life can be captured, at any time, for public consumption. Not just in everyday life, but in every moment of competition. Their reactions and responses to their own performance are made available, analyzed, dissected, and judged. They experience immense pressure to be “liked,” and seen as successful. Implementing tools and practicing skills to manage all kinds of pressure is essential for optimal mental health.
- Making an impact can come in a supportive role- the elite athlete doesn’t have to be front and center to contribute to their team, all the time. Simone Biles used her voice to speak up for her own mental health. She feared her current mind space would put her at risk for physical injury. She chose to contribute to her team by giving moral support, by cheering for them, and by using her voice to encourage and uplift.
- Simone Biles, like any elite athlete, has value beyond their sport – teen athletes should not be defined by how they perform or the “score” that they get. Competing in their sport is one way to express who they are, it is NOT all of who they are.
Our children, who happen to be athletes, are human first!!
Lisa Bonta Sumii, LCSW, CSW is a sports social worker and mental performance consultant to elite athletes. In her private practice, she provides clinical support and performance consultation to collegiate, Olympic, and professional athletes. Lisa is also the Mental Health and Sports Performance Specialist at the Oakland Roots Sports Club, a professional men’s soccer team and purpose-driven club. Her 14-year-old daughter, Malaya, is a high-level softball player AND an awesome human being!!