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How Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Other Top Athletes Are Forcing the Mental Health Conversation in Sports and Fitness

Over the past few months, the decisions that Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis champion Naomi Osaka have both made to drop out of respective competitive sporting events to care for themselves have rocked the public conversation on mental health.

The implications of those actions in the world of sports, fitness and wellness were tackled last week at the Beauty Inc + FN Wellness Forum, a one-day virtual summit that gathered some of the top experts and leaders in the wellness, fitness, athletic, beauty and adjacent industries to explore the power of self care in 2021 and how the very definition of wellness has shifted during the pandemic.

In a panel on mental health in sports and fitness, sports psychologist Dr. Leeja Carter, Ph.D. and psychotherapist Liz Beecroft were joined by Asics global head of marketing communications Fiona Berwick to discuss how athletes are forcing the conversation on mental health, the impact of this high-profile advocacy on amateur athletes and fitness enthusiasts and how brands are meeting athletes of all levels in supporting mental health initiatives. The discussion took place on the heels of Biles’s decision to drop out of the women’s gymnastics team finals as well as the individual all-around at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo.

“We should all be taking a page from Simone Biles’s playbook, and that is to always be checked in with your body and know when it’s a good time to just pause and take a break. She is putting her physical and mental health first, but most importantly she is putting her safety first,” said Dr. Carter during the panel. “The mind and the body are connected, we know that how we feel and think directly impacts our body’s physiology and our biomechanics. Sport is more than just physical, it’s a very delicate, intimate dance between how you are feeling mentally and how you are practicing and training your body physically. Someone who is not paying attention to their mental health as an athlete is not paying attention to an essential ingredient in performance and sports.”

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Naomi Osaka at the Tokyo Olympics.
CREDIT: AP

Beecroft, founder of Mentl Sesh and a psychotherapist who works with athletes as well as patients whose professions center in the fashion, music and sneaker industries, agreed and also pointed to male athletes such as NBA players Kevin Young, Paul George and Ben Simmons as other high-profile mental health advocates. “When you consider male athletes, there is this whole other stigma in terms of identifying as a male and not being able to express your emotions. There have been these gender stereotypes for as long as time where men have grown up in certain circumstances to mask how they’re feeling,” said Beecroft, who has collaborated with brands like Nike on products promoting mental health awareness. “We are starting to see athletes speak more openly about it. We still have a long way to go, but my hope is that the more we can get people to come forward and share their stories, the more emphasis will be placed on the mental component of the game.”

The mind-body connection was at the forefront of the discussion, and Asics executive Berwick explained how the athletic brand has expanded its founding principle of “sound mind, sound body” (its very name is an acronym for the motto in Latin, “anima sana in corpore sano”) through the pandemic. Among its new initiatives is the Mind Uplifter, a tool that provides a before-and-after image of the mind, tracking it across ten emotional and cognitive traits from focus to positivity to calm and relaxation. Using facial imaging recognition as well as self-reported data, the tool aims to show athletes and fitness users the impact of exercise on the mind. To further demonstrate the collective impact, Asics launched a global interactive map of the tool in July.

“So far we can see that emphatically and no matter what the sport is, just 20 minutes is making a positive difference across all 10 of those traits,” said Berwick. “We are excited to see the study go live around the world and to see how that changes over the year.”

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The Beauty Inc + FN Wellness Forum.
CREDIT: WWD/FN

The brand also conducted a series of surveys throughout the pandemic to track how athletes from amateur to elite changed their fitness routines and attitudes, looking at how lockdowns in various parts of the world impacted the relationship with sports and fitness. Asics also hosted a variety of virtual running events and competitions for its elite athletes.

“It really got us thinking about the role that we, Asics, with our motto of sound mind and sound body, what role we should be playing to help our employees, our athletes, and our everyday athletes – our consumers,” said Berwick.

For other brands looking to mental health initiatives as well as how to support their professional athletes and amateur athlete consumers, both Dr. Carter and Beecroft agreed that the approach should be nuanced, with tools and resources behind any public push.

“I would recommend that organizations and companies go directly to community stakeholders and leaders and ask them how they can create a fitness and wellness or sport model within a community that works for them and for what their needs are. Allow yourself to co-create something beautiful that really is helpful,” said Dr. Carter, who is a professor at Temple University and the executive director at the Coalition for Food and Health Equity. “When I think of equity, I think about availability, accessibility, reliability, and things that are culturally grounded and sound within the communities in which we are seeking to close the access gap when it comes to fitness and wellness opportunities.”

The panel discussion and the entire Beauty Inc. + FN Wellness Forum can be viewed here.

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