Simone Biles: The Importance of Mental Health

By now I’m sure most of you heard the stories or saw the headlines about U.S. Olympic gymnast, and frequent champion, Simone Biles withdrawing from competition. She did so out of injury, to be fair, but an injury that we so often combat (and one I so often am helping you all understand the importance of): mental fitness.

To be clear, Biles is mentally fit. Her withdrawing actually proved that. She put a spotlight on the mental health conversation we all need to continuously be having. A conversation I, of course, encourage and hope is more commonplace.

When I first heard about Biles’ situation in Tokoyo, I had mixed emotions on it. I knew, without question, it would cause a stir, much like tennis star Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open earlier this year, citing the same pressure and mental health reasons. 

Across social media, the mental toughness myths showed up and were reinforced. Folks calling Biles, “selfish” “immature” and “a shame to the country.” 

“She’s a quitter.”

“She quit on her team and her country.” 

“Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.”

I don’t know Simone. I don’t know her story, and I don’t know what triggers her, so I can’t judge her or her decision.

I found an article online that stated “she had a little bit of the twisties. The twisties are a mysterious phenomenon — suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Your body just won’t cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it.”

The twisties sound like the yips in baseball like Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Mackey Sasser, and Rick Ankiel

(It also sounds like the Brain Problem I talk about.)

Ultimately, it sounds dangerous. And not like ‘oh no, we are going to lose dangerous.’  Like really dangerous. 

Guess what? Most of the time the yips, or in this case the twisties, happen because the body has some unresolved trauma, and coming to fruition in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

PTSD is unpredictable. It’s manageable but never fully cured, and it can show up at inopportune time.

When uncertainty and pressure increase, unresolved trauma shows up in people and their performance. It takes place in a less than familiar setting or under weird circumstances. A cue that reminds their amygdala of the trauma shows up. These cues could be as small as a sound, smell, a feeling in the body or the recurrence of previous injury.

In Simone’s case, it seems like the Olympic environment meets that criteria:

1) The soon to be crowned “Hero” of the Olympic Finals.
2) Empty Arena. 
3) Masks and concerns about COVID.
4) A history of trauma.

Simone is one of the greatest Olympians and gymnasts of all time. She has the medals to show it (more than 35 to be exact). Her decision to withdraw in favor of her mental health does not negate her accomplishments or her greatness.  

All of her choices were uncomfortable, and no matter which she chose she was caught in a catch-22; She could go out and perform knowing she wasn’t right. Lie. Mess up, and get hammered for it by people who don’t know her and her story, likely resulting in her losing her hero status to some. Possibly get labeled as a choker for costing the U.S. the Gold, maybe hurting her team or herself.

OR

She could sit out. She could be honest and truthful in the reasons why, to her coaches, teammates and, most importantly, herself. She’d still get hammered for the decision by people who don’t know her and her story, likely resulting in her losing her hero status to some. Possibly get labeled as a choker for costing the U.S. the Gold, maybe hurting her team or herself.

Simone’s decision in the latter showed courage. Courage is not acting without fear, it’s acting in the face of fear. She faced the media and answered the questions. She took responsibility and didn’t blame anyone. You can hear the fear in her voice when she tells her teammates she’s leaving.

Many athletes ask me to talk through difficult decisions. I usually advise in these catch-22’s to make the decision that is most consistent with your values and has the greatest long term upside. 

I think Simone may have done that. 

Whatever her rationale for the decision she only needs to justify to herself, her coaches, and her teammates.  It’s not ours to judge.

Still, people do. It goes with the territory. And she can ignore it if she wants and she probably will. AND make her own decisions.

We don’t own her. Or Jordan’s Dream Team. We didn’t own Michael Phelps. 

Simone owes us nothing. If anything we owe her. She’s competed at a high level, won over 35 medals, all while being sexually abuse by a pedophile enabled by a system that reinforced Mental Toughness Myths to keep her quiet about the trauma she endured.  

I am not sorry this may make people uncomfortable.  To Simone Biles’ critics, I’ll quote my great friend Dave Essen.  “GFY.”