Simone Biles: When Mental Health is Most Important

Written by Lauren Abrams, Contributing Writer

Considering the hype around our Olympics gymnastics team–and Simone Biles in particular–everyone at this point has likely seen Simone withdraw from multiple days of competition. An earth-shattering, vastly public, high-pressure type of withdrawal. 

Gymnastics scoring is a whole other system all on its own, with a scoring system that’s sensitive down to a thousandth of a point. This brings us to Biles’ “superstar effect” and how the crippling weight of the gymnastics world came to rest on her shoulders. “At competitions in which superstar Simone competed, we generally find that other gymnasts tended to do simpler routines but performed them worse – shown by the drop in the difficulty and execution scores after Simone Biles became a superstar presence at the end of 2013” (Meissner, et al). Essentially, what this means, is that Biles’ presence changes the stakes for other athletes. She’s so good that she changes what constitutes a deduction and a perfect score. 

If we try to find some empathy for her mental health, think of having to constantly one-up yourself, and hope your focus stays steady enough that you don’t fall and break your neck on a death-defying vault. Have you ever felt like you couldn’t focus entirely or be fully present during a work day? Like you were distracted, or you hit a block in your productivity and your mind just won’t lock in the way you want it to? Biles reports she got “the twisties,” which other gymnasts have described as the need to twist within midair, or simply losing control of your body while in the middle of a stunt. The lack of physical safety is incredibly anxiety-inducing as well as physically unsafe (Giambalvo). What might that same feeling at work be like as you do backflips on a four-inch beam? On top of this, the pandemic delayed training times, messed with schedules, and completely overthrew the sense of stability that usually comes with Olympic preparation. 

The mental strain of competition usually occurs before the actual athletic performance. And for Biles, her stress did start in the practices leading up to the competition. Studies showed that for Olympic athletes, there is a variety of contributing stress experiences happening all at once: expectations, external distractions, negative thoughts, the coaching relationship, fear of injury/experiencing an active injury, and the competition itself. Expectations, injury, and coaching relationships revealed themselves to be the highest forms of stress, as they were the experiences over which athletes have the least amount of control. Biles certainly can’t control the media storms around her competitions, she’s a sexual abuse survivor of her former coaching staff, and her fear of injury as a result of her “twisties” is a completely unknown variable (Pensgaard). Overall, Biles is one person, with too many unknowns to hold at one time. You have to know when to take a pause. 

Olympic athletes might be pushing themselves for us, but we also need to push ourselves for them–push ourselves to have empathy, be compassionate, and understand their commitment to their sport isn’t something that can be commodified into the expectation of a gold medal. Hats off to Biles for knowing her self-worth is greater than that of another first-place finish. 

References

Giambalvo, Emily. “Simone Biles Said She Got the ‘Twisties.’ Gymnasts Immediately Understood.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 July 2021, 

http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/2021/07/28/twisties-gymnastics-simone-biles tokyo-olympics/. 

Meissner, Leah, et al. “The Superstar Effect in Gymnastics.” Taylor and Francis Online, 11 Jan. 2021, 

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00036846.2020.1869170?scroll=top&needAccess =true. 

Pensgaard, A. M., and H. Ursin. “Stress, Control, and Coping in Elite Athletes.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, vol. 8, no. 3, 2007, pp. 183–189., doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.1998.tb00190.x.

Published by Counseling With Leslie

Leslie Stevens, M.Ed., LCMHC is a North Carolina and Virginia board-certified licensed professional counselor. She co-owns a successful practice in Carrboro, North Carolina. Leslie specializes in helping adults navigate stress, depression, anxiety, and perfectionism. Additionally, she is a life strategist, spiritual coach, and writer.

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