With a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, Simone Biles is the most decorated American gymnast and is widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time. The 24-year-old, 4’8” dynamo shocked the sports world this week when she dropped out of the Olympic team’s gymnastic finals. Did an ankle injury take her out? Did she fail a drug test? Did she cave in the face of steep competition? What exactly prompted Biles unexpected decision to withdraw?
Citing her mental health, Biles backed out of the team final competition after “twisting” and stumbling on a vault; public reaction was swift and not always supportive.
For those who firmly believe the tough get going when the going gets tough (the tough don’t quit!), Simone Biles’ withdrawal from competition is an unforgiveable offense. They claim Biles’ ego got in the way after an embarrassingly poor performance, and she quit. Naysayers, like the ever-critical Piers Morgan, view Biles’ withdrawal as an excuse for not doing as well as anticipated.
“Are mental health issues now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke,” Morgan said. He carried his condemnation further on Twitter: “Sorry Simone Biles, but there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having fun – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country.”
While Morgan is correct that there’s nothing brave or heroic about quitting an endeavor because it lacks fun, Simone Biles’ motivation for quitting is far more complicated than that. Mental health is not a simple thing.
Sooner or later, we all experience pressure in our lives, but living in the spotlight at Biles’ young age, being regarded as perfect, and striving daily to meet impossible physical standards is an emotional pressure few of us will experience. And let’s not forget that Biles suffered years of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, and now convicted sex offender. Such a trauma doesn’t go away. Little wonder the young lady felt as if the “weight of the world” was on her shoulders.
“I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” Biles said. “That’s why I decided to take a step back.”
Her step back is a step forward for mental health awareness, but in the real world, it probably won’t change a thing.
Who among us hasn’t felt stressed on the job, put-upon by life’s demands, and in dire need of a day off from work, from the demands of the daily grind? While the media gives lip-service to taking one day at a time, management frowns upon workers who express a need for a “mental health day.” If you’re sick (Covid pandemic notwithstanding), you’re still expected to show up at work and meet deadlines. If you’re depressed, nobody wants to hear about it. Just put on a happy face and get to work. That’s reality. That’s truth. Few people freely opt out to work on their “mindfulness” for fear of being considered weak and ineffective. While Simone Biles’ action highlights the importance of mental health, it will likely have little positive effect in the average person’s life. If you think I’m wrong, try telling your boss you need to take a step back to focus on your mindfulness.
Nevertheless, kudos to Simone Biles for having the guts to put her mental health first. Kudos to her for realizing there’s more to life than gymnastics. Kudos for withstanding the public’s harsh scrutiny and for being her own best advocate. More importantly, kudos to Simone Biles for pushing mental health issues to the forefront and opening the door for discussion and improvement.