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San Diego Sports Psychologist Weighs In On Simone Biles' Mental Gymnastics

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Shira Oretzky is a San Diego sport psychologist and certified mental performance consultant who works with collegiate and Olympic athletes. She joined Midday Edition to talk about how Olympic Gymnast Simone Biles opened dialogue surrounding mental health and athletes.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Simone Biles returned to compete in the balance beam final winning bronze is gymnastics event finals wrapped up this morning in Tokyo. In many ways. Her 2021 Olympic journey has been symbolic of the mental health balance. One must have to compete last week. The champion withdrew from competition to focus on her mental health before returning a move many athletes, including USA, surfing gold medalists, Carissa Moore found inspiring.

Speaker 2: 00:27 I think she's handled it beautifully. I applaud her for putting herself first and doing what's right for her. That's hard to do in a world where people expect so much of you and have this idea of what success looks like

Speaker 1: 00:39 JIRA or Teskey is a sports psychologist and certified mental performance consultant who works with collegiate and Olympic athletes. She joins us now to talk about how Simone Biles is decision open dialogues surrounding mental health athletes and all of us. You're welcome.

Speaker 3: 00:56 Thank you so much for having me.

Speaker 1: 00:59 Simone Biles won her seventh career Olympic metal today after previously withdrawing from competition for mental health reasons and something called twisties. First, how significant is her road back to competition and winning the bronze

Speaker 3: 01:13 Medal? I think this was such a monumental event today. You know, I think of Simone Biles is one of the greatest athletes of all times, and now she's tied for winning the most Olympic medals of any American gymnast. And I think her ability to be able to step away when she needed to, to focus on her health and her safety was so important and really presents, you know, provides a stage where it gives permission to other athletes to be able to do so as well. And then the fact that she was able to come back from it and win another metal was just so powerful.

Speaker 1: 01:53 Can you explain what the twisties is and the danger that issue can pose if ignored?

Speaker 3: 02:00 Yes, definitely. The twisties, um, are a type of mental block in which a gymnast is in midair and they lose their sense of orientation. Um, so they become disoriented when they're upside down and it can be caused by anxiety or pressure. We see it in different sports in different ways. So if, um, a gymnast is experiencing this and they miscalculate their landing, it can be quite dangerous because they may land on their feet wrong. They could land on their back or their neck. And so it's really important. As I had mentioned that they're in kind of that clear mental state to be able to perform these high level skills.

Speaker 1: 02:39 And can you explain what's the difference between mental health and mental performance and how important is it that both of those things be in sync for competition?

Speaker 3: 02:48 When we think of our health and wellbeing, nor mental health exists, kind of on a continuum. So you have resiliency and thriving on one end and then impairment on the other. And you know, what the world of sports is seeing more and more is how important our mental wellness wellness is and how it's an integral part of, you know, elite optimal health as well as performance. I love Brian Hain line from that. He's the chief medical officer from the NCAA. And he says, you know, in this day and age, we can no longer separate wellness and excellence. And so I think, you know, in basic terms, when we're feeling well, we perform at our best. And so I think that's the way that we can see those two components be integrated

Speaker 1: 03:37 And, you know, Simone Biles, wasn't the only athlete struggling with mental health issues, Carrie Richardson, and Naomi Osaka, both took measures to address their issues. Why do you think this year has been particularly challenging for us? Wait,

Speaker 3: 03:51 I think this, um, has been such an unprecedented year with so much uncertainty and predictability with COVID. First of all, you know, athletes, they train in kind of a four year cycle and they're set to peak physically at a certain point. And so they were preparing, you know, for that to be last summer of 2020. And so with all the changes that have been taking place with the Olympics initially canceled and then the uncertainty, and, you know, I think that's been extremely challenging as well as just, you know, some of the challenges and concerns that all of us have been experiencing this year concerned for our own health. Um, our families combined with, you know, some of the social justice issues that athletes have been experiencing and the pressures of competing in front of the world, given all the restrictions with COVID it's, I think it's been quite a challenging year

Speaker 1: 04:52 Because I was going to ask if you think that issues of sexism and racism are an added layer to that.

Speaker 3: 04:57 I, I do. I think, you know, there's a lot of components that have been occurring for a long time and, you know, some of them have been more invisible. And I think this year has, has really brought a lot of the things to the surface

Speaker 1: 05:11 Novak Djokovich was another athlete who had mental health issues, uh, days after criticizing Simone Biles, his decision to focus on her wellbeing. He had a violent meltdown and withdrew from competition. What do you think about how he responded and managed his mental health in that situation?

Speaker 3: 05:29 I think this really goes to show how important it is to address issues early on. If we don't, if we push things away or we ignore them, often they reach, um, they kind of build up and, um, can reach more of a crisis level and then come out in an unhealthy manner.

Speaker 1: 05:50 You know, what lessons can other athletes pull from Simone Biles is, and even Naomi Osaka, his decision prioritize their mental health.

Speaker 3: 05:59 I think this is a great point. I mean, these athletes, um, are kind of on a very public stage and, you know, when they come out and speak openly, um, as well as, you know, Michael Phelps, it gives younger athletes, um, permission to do the same. And so it opens up the dialogue around this area and it helps athletes know that it's okay to say no and have a limit when they need to, to, um, make health and wellbeing a priority. Um, and so I think they've been, you know, very courageous in terms of coming out and speaking openly about this.

Speaker 1: 06:36 Do you think those lessons can be useful for all of us? I mean, even people in their own careers and to day-to-day lives?

Speaker 3: 06:44 I think so. I think as, you know, as, as we bring this topic more to the forefront, it's always been there, but it's, um, been more invisible and as we just kind of are able to speak openly and express our vulnerabilities, um, I mean, I think part of what these athletes are showing is that you can kind of be the greatest at your craft and you can also, you know, be human and, and be vulnerable. And I think it takes a lot of courage to show those sides. Um, but as, as we do, it helps us to be able to talk about it. It helps us to be able to manage some of these stressors, some of these pressures that we experience in our life in, um, in a healthier way.

Speaker 1: 07:27 I've been speaking with Shira [inaudible] sports, psychologist, and certified mental performance consultant. She were thank you so much for your insight today.

Speaker 3: 07:36 It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.