University of Delaware Sport Psychologist Dr. Christine Jehu was watching as Simone Biles bowed out of the 2020 Olympics women's gymnastics team competition earlier this week.
Jehu said Biles' choice to exit a competition she was favored to win, came from a position of knowledge that only Biles could have in the situation.
"What Simone did this week was really show the strength of an elite athlete, but also, she really knows herself."
Jehu, who served on the American Psychological Association's Board of Directors in 2016, said the training top-level athletes receive on-and-off the competition surface is representing itself.
"Any elite athlete is going to be so tuned in to the physical, the emotional, and the mental. They're going to know--even before we know--that something is amiss. That self-awareness and understanding where she is at is that first step to really moving forward and identifying where she really wants to be in the future."
After stepping out of Tuesday's team competition, and then Thursday's individual all-around, Biles said that her mental health was more important than competition.
“We also have to focus on ourselves because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” Biles said. “So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Biles entered Tokyo having won every World or Olympic championship all-around competition she'd entered in since 2013, her only miss was not competing in 2017, when Middletown's Morgan Hurd claimed the title at Worlds.
Jehu said Biles' decision was likely based on the expectations caused by her past performances and the hype of the Olympic stage, but also on ongoing factors such as being a survivor of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar's abuse, all could have weighed on Biles beyond what her powerful shoulders could carry.
"There's a point at which sport is a major coping mechanism for many athletes. You get out there, you do what you love, and you can escape the pain of life. But it gets to the point where that threshold is crossed, where it is no longer that escape, it's no longer fun in some instances, and that's where we tend to see the life struggles spill into that competitive space."
Dr. Jehu said she hopes Biles' decision inspires more mental health conversations among those involved in athletics, from athletes and parents to coaches.
"My hope is that our parents start to listen to these conversations, and see if Simone Biles is having this impact, how might this be impacting my child? I have a lot of conversations, where students don't feel comfortable sharing with their parents what is going on for them emotionally. They have a hard time sharing it with their coaches because they don't feel like they won't understand, they 'have it all.' That humanity piece is removed when someone is placed on a stage like this."
She would like to see mental health become a part of coaches at all levels, especially in youth sports.
"If we can help those folks early on who have these Olympic and pro aspirations, and we're giving them all of the tools from the jump. They're going to be better humans, and they're going to be better humans, and our world is going to be better for it."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report