‘They are people first’: UI sports psychologist on mental pressures of performance for elite athletes

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DES MOINES, Iowa – Simone Biles is the most decorated gymnast in the world, but it’s her unprecedented decision to step off the Olympic stage that’s creating conversations worldwide. Tuesday night, Biles announced she would not be competing in the individual all-around competition after pulling out of the team final in order to focus on her mental health. That announcement is now shining a spotlight on the immense pressure these elite athletes face.

Dr. Carmen Tebbe Priebe is a licensed psychologist and has been working with elite athletes for more than 15 years. She also works part-time at the University of Iowa. She says performing on a platform as big as the Olympic stage can be a double-edged sword for athletes because it is exciting, but the fans can lose sight that these athletes are people too.

“Being in that spotlight, being able to compete and the adrenaline rush, but at the same time that means that’s all people see,” Dr. Tebbe Priebe said. “And elite athletes, they are people first. They are people who happen to play a sport, and that easily gets lost. It gets lost by everybody else, it gets lost by the media, social media, and then it can get just lost by that person.”

Dr. Tebbe Priebe says sports psychology can play a big role in helping an athlete know who they are as a person outside of sports. She mentions a lot of people don’t understand how much time and training goes into being an elite athlete, and how these individuals are often at the mercy of their sport.

When she learned of Bile’s decision, she thought it took a lot of strength and sacrifice.

“Certainly everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, but none of us are Simone Biles,” Dr. Tebbe Priebe said. “None of us know what she went through and what she goes through and what’s all going on. So I guess my main reaction to that is I just wish people would have more empathy and less judgment for somebody else’s decision because we all get the right to do that. Most of us get to make decisions about our own lives without being scrutinized for it.”

In recent years, she’s seen sports psychology get more attention in both the elite and collegiate arena. She hopes this recent focus on mental health will help gain the support it needs.

“For most of us, we have stress in our lives and so do elite athletes,” Dr. Tebbe Priebe said. “They have family things, they have relationship things. They have the same things going on that we do, and they’re just having to navigate all that under a lot of scrutiny, a lot of pressure, a lot of time commitment. I just hope that we see this as the importance of providing that support for them for their own well being.”

Dr. Tebbe Priebe hopes one day sports psychology can be as common as athletic training or strength and conditioning. She would like to see it more as proactive because right now she says people look at it more as a fix when something’s broken.

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