It’s Time to Talk About More Than Just the Gold-Winning Moments
Sports Marketers Have an Opportunity to Raise Awareness of Mental Health
Content by Jess Brown
This week, the greatest gymnast of all time made a move that’s more significant than anything ever achieved on the competition floor. Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the gymnastics women’s teams and individual finals sends yet another wake-up call not just to the sports industry, but also to brands, agencies and other organizations that have the ability to help change the stigma around mental health.
Olympic athletes have long been celebrated for their strength, grit and determination. From the outside looking in, they appear to be superhuman — pushing their bodies beyond the toughest of circumstances. They’re portrayed as heroes in marketing and advertising, placed on a pedestal for every rising athlete to aspire to be.
The stories that haven’t been told enough are what ill-informed individuals would call signs of weakness. For decades, these athletes have been taught to never show fear, and to push on no matter how great the physical risk may be. Kerri Strug’s famous one-foot landing on vault in the 1996 Olympics, due to tearing two ligaments in her first round, is celebrated as one of the greatest gymnastics achievements in history. In thinking of the alternate ending to that story – a life altering or even fatal injury – it feels grim.
Fast forward 25 years to this week’s Tokyo Olympics, there is another story. A story where the most decorated gymnast in the world made a gut-wrenching decision to place priority on her mental health over competition. Simone’s story should be celebrated as much, if not more, than any sports feat.
Watching her deliver the news to her teammates and speaking with the media regarding her decision, I could feel her anxiety through the screen. It reminded me of some of the tense moments I experienced during my tenure in professional motorsports. It’s hardly fair to expect athletes to perform and be 100% mentally focused after hours and sometimes days of back-to-back obligations leading up to an event.
In NASCAR, drivers have a full morning of activities before they’re expected to buckle up and race for hundreds of miles at speeds more than 200mph. Those demands are on top of making time for family, to eat and to prepare your team for the day ahead. There were times my driver said, “I just need a minute.” Sometimes that meant being late to a sponsor appearance, sometimes it meant saying ‘no’ to an interview, sometimes it meant avoiding a crowd of screaming fans. In those scenarios we both suffered scrutiny for not meeting expectations.
More than 100 Olympic athletes around the world have fallen victim to the grimmest outcome of mental health challenges, and they are not alone. According to the World Health Organization, more than 700,000 people die by suicide every year — which is one person every 40 seconds. The rate of suicide deaths in younger individuals, who are more impressionable when it comes to social media and influencers, is far greater than that of older generations.
As marketers, we have an opportunity to use our platforms and reach to bring awareness to this health crisis — a situation one Olympian even referred to as an “epidemic.” (By the way, that was bobsledder Steven Holcomb, who later fell victim himself.) What would a campaign look like that places emphasis on mental exercises versus physical ability? Trade in the sunrise shots and sweat-drenched bodies in the weight room for meditation, breathing and therapy. Inspire those watching to address their mental wellbeing, to understand that it’s OK to talk about things like depression and anxiety, and to ask for help.
“Authentic” is a word often used to describe the creative direction for campaigns where name and likeness is used. Yes, let’s be authentic. It’s time to talk about more than just the gold-winning moments.