On Tuesday, the sports world shook when superstar United States gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competing in the team final at the Tokyo Olympics. At first, USA Gymnastics said that she had stepped away because of a physical problem.
“Simone has withdrawn from the team final competition because of a medical issue,” said the organization’s statement. “She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”
But that didn’t turn out to be not quite the whole truth. Biles later told NBC-TV’s “Today Show” that the emotional toll had become too great.
“Physically, I feel good, I’m in shape,” she said. “Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star isn’t an easy feat, so we’re just trying to take it one day at a time and we’ll see.”
Even before her withdrawal, Biles had talked about the immense pressure she was facing during the Olympic competition. After Sunday’s qualifying round in the team competition, in which Biles — widely regarded as not only the world’s best gymnast but perhaps the greatest of all time — turned in performances that were head-and-shoulders above other competitors but below her usual standard.
“[I]t wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it,” she said on Instagram. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!”
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Biles and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes — or to the entire team, which has now won the AFC West in five consecutive seasons, appeared in three straight AFC championships and two successive Super Bowls.
So after the team concluded its first full training camp practice at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri, on Wednesday, reporters were ready with questions about the mental health of its players.
“It’s extremely important,” said safety Tyrann Mathieu — himself an All-Pro honoree in his two seasons with the team. “Some of our influence spreads far beyond the country we live in. So I think most people don’t necessarily understand the pressure.”
Mathieu had clearly been paying attention to what had been happening with Biles — and also with tennis player Naomi Osaka. The Japanese superstar had also withdrawn from the Olympics, saying that the pressure of high expectations had played a role in an upset third-round loss to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.
“So really, emotionally, you pray for the people around them, hoping that they can continue to get the support,” said Mathieu. “But I’m proud of [Biles]. I’m proud of Naomi. I’m proud of all these women who are stepping up and kind of taking that initiative to put mental health first. That is the most important thing for an athlete.”
“My hat goes off to the young lady, man,” Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said of Biles. “She’s a beast. She’ll be better for it when she’s all said and done — and that’s the most important thing.”
Reid and Mathieu’s remarks were not that surprising because NFL teams — and particularly the Chiefs — have been ahead of this curve in recent seasons. Two years ago last May, the league and the NFL Players Association reached an agreement that all NFL teams retain a mental health professional on a full-time basis. Since the previous fall, the team had already been talking to Dr. Shaun Tyrance, who became the first such team clinician hired after the agreement. Known to all as “Dr. T,” he is now present at every practice and team meeting.
Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said that the league’s mandate came at the end of a 5-10 year period where it had been bringing focus to the issue — which Reid said it continues to do today.
“Listen, the league does a great job of talking about that with us,” he said. “They’ve got films that we went through yesterday, actually. And then we keep a close eye.”
Reid said that Tyrance meets with all of the team’s players throughout the year — and the team’s owner said he’d been pleased with the way his team clinician has worked out.
“He’s a great internal resource for our players,” Hunt noted. “And it is something that I think we have to be more cognizant of — as an organization — than maybe 10 or 20 years ago.”
Tyrance spoke of his work when he was hired.
“My main duties are to support our players, their families, their friends, their significant others, their children — anybody that’s in their circle,” he said. “If they’re important to our players, they’re important to me. My job is to support them with any challenges, any issues or anything that they face on and off the field. I can’t be a face that they only go to when something is wrong — that’s not how I work. I’m always around and guys are in my office all the time, even when times are good. That’s a big thing for me.”
“His door is always open,” added Reid. “Nobody’s too big to step up and say, ‘Listen, I’ve got a problem.’ We’ve all got them.”
And specifically, concerning Mahomes, Hunt said he isn’t concerned about the effect the team’s 31-9 Super Bowl LV loss will have on the team’s quarterback in 2021.
“Knowing Pat like I do,” smiled Hunt, “I think he’s going to take the disappointment of the Super Bowl and raise his game to another level.”
But should it turn out differently, the Chiefs will be ready.