“You raise the blade. You make the change. You rearrange me until I’m sane. You lock the door and throw away the key. There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” — Roger Waters
The Simone Biles story has shocked the world, but it’s been happening a lot more lately. Naomi Osaka was the story earlier in the summer when she withdrew from the French Open. Mental health and high stakes athletics normally doesn’t collide like this, but we might be witnessing the new normal.
The reality of the situation is that it really isn’t all that new. Jimmy Pearsall was a big leaguer that suffered from mental illness. He chronicled his story in a book “Fear Strikes Out.” The link for the book is included for those interested in reading his story. The cold, hard truth is that the psyche of a world class athlete is not as air tight as we were led to believe.
Those in the sports world often called it “choking.” The term is a ghastly term that refers to someone’s inability to do something simple that they have done hundreds of times in practice. We saw it happen to Chuck Knoblauch in the 1990s when he suddenly couldn’t throw the ball to first base. We saw it happen to Steve Blass in the 1970s when he suddenly couldn’t throw a strike to save his life.
The struggle is to see the humanity in the moment. I hate to pull the experience card, but it is something non-athletes may not have experience in. As a kid, I loved nothing more than playing golf. I played nearly every day and hung out on the driving range until I couldn’t swing anymore. On the range I could reproduce perfect shot after perfect shot. Move me into a tournament or with real money on the line and I turned into a basket case.
Most of my friends would assert that golf isn’t a sport and in some sense they are right. In most sports you don’t have time to think about what you’re doing. You have to react to the action and that always came naturally. Ask me to think about it and things go horribly wrong. It’s funny, but now I don’t have near the physical ability I had before, but the mental problems are mostly gone. There just isn’t nearly as much at stake as before.
The burden of expectations can be overwhelming. Here’s hoping that most people will take a deep breath and appreciate the difficulty of the moment. It’s most difficult when the whole world is watching and I suppose that’s kind of the whole point. Supreme athletes can do amazing things, but they are still people with the normal human frailties. Those can include anxiety, depression, and all of the other things many of us deal with on a daily basis. While their athletic ability might be superhuman, their psyches are not.