It came as a shock to the entire world when the greatest Olympian of a generation chose not to compete last week. Simone Biles withdrew from both the U.S. team and individual gymnastic events in the first days of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games due to a mental health injury. The four-time gold medalist feared that the state of her mental well-being jeopardized her physical safety and the team’s ability to medal. Biles’s decision was met with applause, sympathy, bewilderment, and disappointment.
But however brave her decision to forgo competition amid mental health concerns and the pressures of competing as a black female athlete, there is hope for athletes who experience the cascading pressures to perform. And there is also a better path for fans to discover a more fulfilling way to enjoy competition.
First and foremost, it’s important to note that regardless of Simone’s reasons for pulling out of the gymnastics competition, it is not helpful to athletes (read: people) when our public responses are antagonistically mean spirited. Critics like Piers Morgan—who lambasted Biles for not being heroic or brave and for letting down her “teammates, fans and country”—aren’t driven by compassion and understanding. Nor are they driven by any real knowledge of the sport or the mental acuity required to consistently compete at a high level.Any competitor can only successfully lose if they have learned who they truly are outside of the sport they’re competing in.
Instead, such kinds of critiques exhibit a certain type of ignorance that doesn’t necessarily lack knowledge, by definition. It’s what black mommas across America define as “ignant”—when someone like Morgan knows better, but chooses to act or speak foolishly anyway.
So any critique of Biles here isn’t meant to minimize the very real issues of mental health in sports. In fact, they are intended to spotlight the lessons we can learn from mental injuries regarding work, performances, and competitions.
I have the personal privilege and experience of being the head girls track coach at the high school where I teach. In addition, I also assist in coaching cross country and I’ve previously coached other sports (football, basketball, golf). So I know firsthand the type of psychological work required to physically and mentally prepare athletes to compete.
Part of the allure of coaching is watching athletes grow as we show them how to manage physical and mental stress. There is a significant balance between learning how to take care of ourselves so we can give others our best, in spite of internal and external duress. Developing a healthy athlete requires coaching that reinforces physical and psychological adeptness. It’s crucial that athletes see they are capable of facing doubts, acknowledging fears, and completing difficult tasks in order to perform their best. It’s even what helps build character outside of sports and carries us through, not only competitions, but life. For many athletes, sports are simply the training grounds for living day to day.
When Biles announced her decision to forgo her potentially last Olympic competition, citing a case of the twisties, several colleagues of mine cited concerns about what this could communicate to other young athletes. All athletes need mental toughness to perform well, and many athletes constantly struggle with self-doubt and the fear of failure. As coaches, our goal is to use sports as a tool to help young athletes grow into adults who embrace discomfort and difficult situations so they can grow into effective problem solvers. My colleagues were concerned that Simone was sending the message that it’s okay to avoid uncomfortable or mentally challenging tasks.
While that is a concern, I also appreciated the message Simone’s decision sent considering our global fight against COVID-19. The pandemic has revealed that self-care is necessary for all of us. When we give ourselves over to nonstop 24/7 workaholism, it wears us down physically, mentally, and emotionally. We weren’t designed to grind all the time. God designed us to take rhythmic breaks, or sabbaths, for this reason (Genesis 2:2–3; Mark 6:31). He even designed our bodies to communicate to ourselves the need for such breaks—even in the middle of Olympic-level competition, just like we witnessed with Biles. Sometimes God might even use nature to inconvenience us and make us take breaks (like the pandemic lockdowns, for example). Sometimes life calls for us to take a step back and see we are designed for more than the grind and nonstop performance.
On the other hand, as a coach, it’s important to communicate to athletes that sometimes choosing self over others may have negative consequences, even though it’s good to take care of yourself. For example, when Biles communicated to her teammates that she was dropping out of the competition, she sent her teammates into a tailspin. Her teammate Jordan Chiles admitted the team was “overwhelmed” and “panicking,” thus putting their mental health in danger. This left the rest of Biles’s teammates scrambling to figure out a way to pull themselves together mentally to perform their best with the members on the floor. Learning how to see ourselves as a collective, as parts of a whole, is one of the great things about team sports. Team members rely on and depend on each other; they affect each other, for good and ill.
Athletes are often well aware of what’s on the line during competitions and are deathly afraid of letting their team, coaches, communities, or themselves down. So they do not need any additional outside pressures to make them perform. I found that what they do need are reminders for why they chose to participate in the sport to begin with, and it filters down to two distinct factors: fun and identity.As coaches, our goal is to use sports as a tool to help young athletes grow into adults who embrace discomfort and difficult situations so they can grow into effective problem solvers.
This might not sound very innovative. In fact, it’s not. But I helped build the foundations of our girls track and field program on two very simple concepts: fun and identity. Sounds crazy, overly simplistic, and kitschy, I know. But it works. Our team won a district championship and advanced several athletes to the regional and state competitions.
When Simone Biles announced her exit from the team portion of the Tokyo Olympics gymnastics competition, I suspected her reasons had something to do with the misprioritization of those same foundational principles. As the apex athlete for her sport, Biles stepped out because she was no longer having fun and her identity—why she was competing—was shaken.
With tears welling in her eyes, Biles admitted: “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came in and felt I was still doing it for other people. So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me, to please other people.” The key to succeeding in any game or competition is having fun. Even for elite-level athletes who make the sport their full-time commitment, fun is necessary. According to Global Performance Coach, Dr. Michelle Clere, “Fun increases your physical and psychological health. It boosts endorphins which decreases stress and improves our tolerance for pain. It increases our relationships, not only with the people you are having fun with but it helps us feel good about all of our relationships.” So fun is an important ingredient as it pertains to performance, how we relate to others, and how we see ourselves.
I think sometimes we forget that they’re called the Olympic Games, and games are supposed to be fun. Sports train us to fortify our character in the face of challenges in a fun way whether we’re competing ourselves or watching others play. And when the pressure mounts, and we witness elite athletes like Simone Biles bow out, it’s a reminder of why we enjoy competition. We don’t have to succumb to the unnecessary outside pressures that seek to steal our joy (fun), because our identity is not in sports.
And this is the second concept of what our girls track and field program is built on: fortifying identity so that our athletes won’t succumb to outside pressures, but will have the foundation necessary to continue in the face of mounting pressures.
Every competitor competes to win. It’s why games are played. But all athletes compete knowing there’s a chance that even if they put their very best foot forward they could lose. It’s the chance we take in competing. But nobody plays to lose, and I would certainly be an awful coach if I purposely coached them to lose. But I do have to prepare them to face loss and disappointment. But how do you prepare an athlete to fail?
First, you must clarify the difference between experiencing success and achieving a goal. In three-time Olympian Lolo Jones’s recent book, Over It, she views achieving a goal and experiencing success very differently: “Success isn’t always defined by a goal achieved,” she writes. “It is truly defined by how we handle failure and disappointment while pursuing our goals.… I think success in life is often discovered after you have given everything you have to achieve a goal, only to hit the ninth hurdle and come up short.” And Jones would definitely know, as she’s walked away from three Olympic Games with no medals.
Second, we must help athletes embrace their emotions and see that they can avoid being swallowed by their fears. We can teach them, as Kobe Bryant once said, “Emotions come and go. The important thing is to accept them all, to embrace them all, and then you can choose to do with them what you want, versus being controlled by emotions.” If losing is the worst thing that can happen in a competition, you’ll still come out a valuable person on the other end. So athletes need not allow the fear of losing to paralyze and keep them from competing in the sport they love.
Any competitor can only successfully lose if they have learned who they truly are outside of the sport they’re competing in. Once they can acknowledge that they are a full human being, with an imagination and a wide range of emotions that come and go—and not just a gymnast/track athlete/football player—they are set to successfully win or lose. Otherwise, any loss will deal a devastating blow to their entire personhood—and any win has the potential to inflate the ego beyond confidence, leading to a devastating explosion or implosion.
While we cannot be sure if there is anyone in Biles’s corner communicating these messages, it’s clear the mounting pressure psychologically overwhelmed her, which affected her physical performance in Tokyo. But however much we want to analyze the psychological effects that brought about Simone’s withdrawal, we must take a look at the culture we’ve built around sports and the expectations we have for athletes like her.
Athletes can do better when we as fans and coaches can better recognize and acknowledge the whole person and not just the athlete. This is why Norway has adopted a low-pressure participation model for their youth sports by removing economic barriers, banning national championships before age 13, and refusing the publication of youth scores and rankings. Norwegian athletes like Karsten Warholm—the 2020 world record and Tokyo Olympic 400-meter hurdles gold medalist—believe this has helped his success and paved the way for Norway’s lead for the most Winter Olympic gold medals of any country.
When our identities aren’t staked on being number one, but on enjoying competition itself, outcomes are just outcomes—opportunities to fortify our character in the face of opposition, setbacks, and triumphs. They don’t make us any more valuable human beings when we achieve or win, nor do they make us any less valuable when we fall short and experience disappointment.
Michael Phelps, who holds the record for most Olympic medals (28) and gold medals (23 team and 13 individual), and who also has confessed his personal struggles with strong mental health, echoes these sentiments. Phelps launched a mental health campaign in 2018, and he was quick to praise Biles for stepping away and putting her mental health first, declaring for all athletes that “it’s okay to not be okay.” (I think Pastor Matt Chandler phrases it better by adding, “It’s okay to not be okay, just don’t stay there.”)
As ensuing conversations surrounding the importance of mental health continue to blossom, it’s helpful for us all to remember that there is an attainable balance we can maintain in participating in or observing games. And it seems Biles is already finding that balance. Biles tweeted: “[T]he outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” And to show her true strength of character and skill, she returned to compete in the balance beam final earlier this week. And she earned a bronze medal for her efforts.