Athletes and anxiety: How mental health is playing a role in performance at all levels

A sports psychology consultant says clients often first come to her with warning signs like panic attacks.
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Team USA gymnast Simone Biles' decision to withdraw from Thursday's individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health is getting praise, but also criticism.

Meg Waldron is a sports psychology consultant and a former Division 1 athlete. She helps athletes from middle school to college and some who are training for the Olympics.

Her clients often first come to her with warning signs like panic attacks.

"And then you start to realize there is a human under there and they are experiencing human feelings, but the world is holding them to a higher standard," Waldron said about the athletes she works with.

RELATED: Simone Biles withdraws from all-around competition at Tokyo Summer Games
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The American gymnastics superstar withdrew from Thursday's all-around competition to focus on her mental well-being.



As for Biles' decision, Waldron said, "Here she is choosing self-preservation, a personal powerful want and need, over the external expectation of the world."

Biles follows professional tennis player Naomi Osaka who announced her break from the court after anxiety struggles.

Osaka has since returned to the court in time for the Olympics. Both players are bringing awareness to athletic greats who have struggled publicly with scandals like Tiger Woods. Woods was raised at a time that stepping back to address mental health was taboo.

"There is no question there is a trend in our society to have young people specialize in a sport from an early age," said Waldron. "There is a capitalism to sports at a young age. When you think about the development of a whole human being it really comes from a variety of experiences, the exploration of play, it becomes about they are only valued if they can follow this structure."

"Then we're putting off a child's sense of agency and making their own decisions and a child's sense of discovery of their own identity," she continued, "that journey for identity that so many people go through naturally."



She added, "The focus is very physical and performance-based, and it's about being tough, strong and vulnerable and that was celebrated."

Thirty-one-year-old Eagles offensive lineman Brandon Brooks was with his team on the practice field on Wednesday. But back in 2016 his anxiety sidelined him.

It's something he addressed in an interview a few years ago.

"It's not something I really knew about until this season. I didn't really know how to cope with that. A lot of people don't understand how consuming anxiety can be," Brooks said in 2017.

Waldron said she teaches young athletes to have a dialogue with coaches and parents and she practices with them to teach them that it's okay if sometimes you cannot do what is asked of them.

Biles did address the media shortly after her decision.

"No injuries, thankfully, and that's why I took a step back because I didn't want to do something silly out there and get injured," Biles said during a press conference following the competition Tuesday. "So I thought it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job, which they absolutely did."
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