The world is buzzing with the news of Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the Olympic team competition. In the middle of their first rotation, following a mistake on vault and discussion with her coach, Biles informed her teammates they would be fighting for the gold without her.
“I say put mental health first before your sport,” Biles said in interviews afterward, “I had to do what’s right for me and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That’s why I decided to take a step back and let [my teammates] do their work.”
This isn’t the first moment in recent months athletes and mental health have made headlines. Tennis star Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open at the end of May when she was threatened with expulsion for not engaging with the press. Since then, she’s spoken openly about her struggle with anxiety.
Michael Phelps has also been candid about the overwhelming pressure of being the best in the world and all the ways he tried to cope.
In a culture so quick to glorify toughness, both physical and mental, we’re seeing a different kind of toughness displayed lately. The kind of tough that sees impending emotional breakdown and makes rest a priority … above *gasp* winning. The rugged, outwardly strong, bootstrap-yanking, win-at-all-cost mantra of the past is starting to crack.
We’ve been taught to push through pressure. Mental toughness is not quitting and never getting up. When the going gets tough the tough get going. Quitters never win and winners never quit.
But maybe the new mantra should be, “When the going gets tough, the tough take a break because they’re worth more to themselves and everyone else whole and healthy.”
I’ve watched Simone for a while. I’ve seen her commercials all over TV, I’ve seen the ads for her docu-series, watched her interviews with various news organizations. I’ve heard the unabashed, over-the-top praise of commentators during meets, seen the little rhinestone goat on the bottom of her leo.
I’ve watched in awe as she’s done one thing after another that’s never been done before. Ever.
She’s one of very few athletes in history who’ve been named the unrivaled GOAT before retirement. It’s not even a question. She’s the best ever.
And as someone who struggles with anxiety, I’ve thought, “I would be losing my mind right now. It’s all so much. So much attention. So much pressure. Is she okay?”
We live in a pressure cooker culture of athlete-worship and sports obsession. It makes sense that athletes are starting to step up and say, “Guys, this is all too much.”
We’ve turned athletes into gods and they’re looking back at us saying, “Stop! We’re human. Far more coordinated than you, sure, but HUMAN.”
In our world of high school and college sports, we see it each year: the star of the team. The way the town bends toward him, proverbial statues raised and idols cast. Hopes and dreams of an entire community are placed on the shoulders of a teenager. Thousands of people chanting their name once a week, futures revolving around them, stakes placed on them.
These athletes, these 16- to 22-year-olds, become the topic of every conversation at the local coffee shop. How amazing they are, how talented and gifted, how thankful they’re on OUR team, and how, with them on our side, we’ll definitely win all the things.
If a person hears this stuff enough, they begin to attach their value to one thing: performance. They are only worthy, only desired for their talent. And they love having it. It feels good. But even more than that, they fear NOT having it. What happens if, or … when, they don’t?
So mistakes aren’t just mistakes. In those moments, they feel like a direct attack on their value and worth as a human being.
If I’m not the best, who am I?
At the end of the day, our kids, our athletes, need to know their worth extends far beyond their abilities. This message should be loud and clear: I care more about you and your health than I do about winning.
If we can learn anything from Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time and one of the greatest athletes of our generation, it’s this: perfection is a myth. (She’s come about as close as anyone.)
Unbeatable is a myth. Faultless is a myth.
And the illusion of perfection, the quest for such a vanishing target, will BREAK you.
We are killing our kids, our athletes, with the pressure we put on them.
When we expect perfection out of tiny, underdeveloped human beings with beating hearts and pulsing emotions, even if we easily forgive them when they make the inevitable mistake, we aren’t allowing them the space to forgive themselves.
So Simone, Naomi, Michael—you are so much more than phenomenal athletes. We see you for what you are: human beings. And you are worthy of love and appreciation with or without a gold medal, with or without sports.
And the same is true for every athlete that frequents our locker rooms this year.
We appreciate your talent. We hope you enjoy using it because, gosh, it’s fun to watch. But we love you far beyond it, your value is never because of it, and you will be worthy long after it’s gone.