By Reggie Miller,
NBA Hall of Fame, Olympian, MTB Racer, CTS Contributing Editor
I’ve heard the clichés a thousand times, maybe more: “Get your head into the game, be mentally strong”. “Focus on what you’re doing and block everything else out”, and my favorite, “Put your thinking cap on and execute”. Now, I’m not saying these are all bad; it depends on timing, usage and who’s delivering the message. But with the conversation on mental health and the awareness that surrounds it from some of our beloved sports superstars like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Jenny Rissveds and Kevin Love, to name a few, I’m here to say this: ATHLETES ARE NOT ROBOTS! Yes, we train hours and hours a day, sacrificing blood, sweat and tears to be the best at our craft. Yes, we have access to the best doctors, trainers, and coaches that money can buy, but at the end of the day athletes have the same mental challenges as anyone else in highly stressful environments.
I grew up as a service brat, living on Air Force bases throughout the country, moving from state to state. It was cool to know that my dad, Chief Master Sargent Saul Miller Sr., worked for the U.S. He was very strict… be punctual and respect your surroundings. He introduced all 5 of his kids to sports and taught us what it takes to succeed. My dad believed in repetition, fundamentals and outworking your opponent. So, I’ve heard the clichés, not only from my dad, but from many coaches, counselors, and trainers throughout my life.
I believe all athletes have switches they can turn on and off. The great ones can navigate them seamlessly during competition. But, what happens when an athlete has a problem with his or her switch? We saw a glimmer of that unfolding with Simone Biles this summer. Obviously, I’m not a gymnast, nor have I ever tried. I have no idea what “twisties” are, but I do know this about Ms. Biles: she is arguably the greatest Olympian we’ve ever seen, and she didn’t all of a sudden wake up in Tokyo and say, “Yah, I don’t feel like competing today!” There must have been a switch turned off, that only SHE could turn back on (which she did, to win the bronze medal on the beam). But the vitriol Ms. Biles endured was uncalled for, in my opinion. Missing some of the maneuvers Simone was attempting could have left her paralyzed, and only she could determine how and when to attempt them. That’s why I will always err on the side of an athlete when they say, “My mind and body are not synced up.” People need to understand the years and years of practice, the hours that go into training, and the bravery it takes to say, “I need help before I go on.” When you criticize an athlete for not ‘performing’ when YOU want them to, that’s not their problem, it’s YOURS.
I had a very insightful and raw conversation with mountain bike 2016 Rio Olympic Gold medalist rider Jenny Rissveds about her own battles with depression and mental health. At the height of her cycling success, winning Gold in Rio, Jenny, who is currently an Outride/Team31 rider, decided to step away from cycling to focus on herself. I asked what her thought process was during this time. She replied, “I think the years of suffering from depression and mental illness taught me to listen to my body. When my body shows me signals of not being healthy, I should listen, because the signals are there to help me and protect me.” This is coming from someone who’s at the top of the cycling food chain in her discipline, knowing that some of her switches weren’t turned on. Jenny went on to say, “I’m more aware of my health today. I have learned to talk about my emotions and that’s probably the BIGGEST thing I’ve learned throughout this process, talking about how I feel and reaching out for help was the first step in self recovery.” She went on to say, “Asking for help and not trying to solve everything on your own is a very important part of the healing process. Talking to others and asking for help is a strength that connects us to each other and helped me.”
Communication is key for all of us, not just athletes, and having stable influences in your life who are there to listen and support you are so important. I asked Jenny what she would tell 16-year-old Jenny Rissveds about her journey, and this was so on point for all athletes: “I would say your personal worth or value is not about your results. You’re not your results, nor will they ever define you. You are you and that’s enough.”
Well said Champ!
I know we all want to see our favorite athletes succeed at the highest level and break records along the way, but always remember there’s a price for greatness and it affects us all in different ways. Whether you are weekend warrior or aspire to be the greatest in your sport, if you’ve experienced symptoms that your mind and body are not synced up, it’s ok to reach out for help. Talking about it is the first step, because we all want to be the best versions of ourselves… none of us are ROBOTS.
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