Mental health or mental toughness? Lesson learned from the Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles
Simone Biles is the superstar American gymnast, who achieved 4 Olympics Gold Medals and 19 gold medals in World Championships before Tokyo 2020. She is considered by many as one of the greatest of all time (GOAT) in the history of Olympic gymnastics. So everybody expected that she would do well and collect many golds this Olympics. Therefore, the world was shocked to see Simone withdraw midway through the Team final event, citing mental health.
Simone Biles did not have a good start during the heats of the Tokyo Olympics. She made several unusual mistakes compared to her standard. Half way through the Vault event in the team final, after she could not successfully perform her vault with a bad landing, she decided to go inside the changing room with the team trainer for a checkup. Not long afterward, the news came out that Simone Biles withdrew and her other teammates had to step in to complete the competition.
Her decision to put mental health first received a lot of support but also quite a number of critics that she used mental health as an excuse. However, what amazed me the most was how well the USA team members and coaches supported Simone and respected her decision, knowing that they would lose one or more gold medals that they worked so hard for. The way the USA team responded showed a high level of empathy to the athletes and what they had to go through mentally. They were aware that mental health issue was real and serious and they did not put the need to win gold medal over mental health.
About fifteen minutes after her announcement of withdrawal, Simone Biles was in her tracksuit and back with her team to support them through the rest of their routine. She cheered loudly and gave the other 3 girls the best support she could.
The head coach also hugged Simone and gave her supporting words. There were no negative feelings or disrespect just because their superstar could not deliver what was expected. Above all, the whole USA team showed a professional yet caring attitude toward an athlete with mental health issue, the same way they would treat someone with a physical injury.
Some people might argue that Simone Biles lacked mental toughness and she should have toughened up and kept on performing. I would argue otherwise. Firstly, unless you are one of the superstars, you would not fully understand the pressure they had to cope with especially on a big tournament like the Olympics. Lately, there have been several superstars including Naomi Osaka who had to cancel their tournament due to mental health issues. Secondly, I think it is much harder to take a step back and admit that there was something wrong with yourself, that you need help. Movies and media gave us a belief that mental toughness only means you keep on going despite what is going on against you, that one should ignore the mental issue if it arises.
By admitting her mental flaw, and calling for help when needed, Simone Biles demonstrated her mental toughness, that she could deal with the disappointment of others and the false expectation that she had to be perfect all the time. By putting Biles’ mental needs above the gold medals or perfect result, the USA gymnastics team showed their mental toughness of putting athletes’ well-being before results. This is definitely something worth learning from because it will ensure longevity and passion of the athletes with their beloved sport.