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Lessons from an Olympic Superstar

On Tuesday, American gymnast Simone Biles shocked fans around the world by withdrawing from an Olympic team event to focus on her mental health. Last month, tennis champion Naomi Osaka sited mental health issues as she stepped back from the French Open. Health providers are hoping fans can learn something from these young superstars.

The attention and admiration. The glory and the gold. When an Olympic athlete performs his or her best, the results seem magical.

But the young men and women who’ve spent countless hours of their lives training know it’s not magic- it’s dedication to grueling work.

Meg Gibson, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Truman Medical Centers/University Health, says an athlete’s mindset is vital to his or her success. Besides seeing patients at TMC/UH and Children’s Mercy Kansas City, Dr. Gibson is an associate professor at the University of Missouri- Kansas City School of Medicine, the head team physician for UMKC Athletics, and had taken care of professional athletes in multiple sports. Dr. Gibson says in some team sports an athlete’s teammates maybe able to help carry the load if an athlete cannot focus. But that’s a luxury Biles, who performs gravity defying acts- while trying to land on a 4-inch beam, does not have.

Dr. Gibson hopes that Biles’ choice to step back and focus on her mental health will highlight the importance of this issue to other athletes and people watching the games.

“We’re talking about the greatest Olympic gymnast [Biles] of all time. They literally made an emoji with a goat (an acronym for Greatest Of All Time) and a gold medal to represent her. So if Biles is able to say she’s going to step down from one of the biggest stages she will ever face, and say, ‘I’m not ready to do this for myself. I’m not ready to do this for my team’, hopefully other people will be able to acknowledge their own struggles,” said Dr. Gibson.

Dr. Gibson knows that it can be tricky for parents of young athletes to decide when to push a child and when to let them take a mental health break. She says the first step for parents is to recognize why they want their child to be part of a sport. “The benefits of sports much outweigh the risks. Not so much the competitiveness, but because it’s important for children to be healthy, be active, be a good teammate and learn to work with others,” said Dr. Gibson.