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Two Societal Conversations Spurred by Simone Biles

Reprinted from Psychology Today 8.1.21. Written by Noam Shpancer Ph.D.

The recent drama surrounding Simone Biles’s withdrawal from Olympic competition has captivated national attention. Very few people have ever been in circumstances that resemble those in which thegifted gymnast has found herself. Our ability to generalize from the experience of such a unique individual in such unique circumstances is therefore inherently limited. Yet the reactions to Biles' withdrawal have been quite telling, and merit several observations:

First, it is now clear that Biles withdrew due to a serious injury. Her injury made it dangerous for her to continue to compete. It also prevented her from performing at the level needed to help her teammates. Thus, she decided to step away from the competition.

This happens all the time, in athletics and in life. People get injured and choose to sit out a competition or give up on important goals or commitments. Having suffered a groin injury some years back, LeBron James could have hopped around the court on one leg (and still be good enough to beat you or me) but he’d be risking his long-term health and not helping his teammates much. He was smart, and a good teammate, to step away. Biles did the same.

What is different about her decision—and the cause of all the commotion--is that the injury that prevented her from competing was mental rather than physical. And she has admitted it openly. Many people in and out of sports still hold the opinion that mental injuries are not real and are therefore not legitimate reasons to stand down from competition. As my colleague and fellow blogger Robert Kraft notes, such belief amounts to an erroneous and unhelpful double standard.

In fact, the main difference is that physical injuries involve organs and bodily structures we understand well—the foot, hand, kidney, heart—while mental ones reside in an organ we understand poorly—the brain. Otherwise, both physical and mental injuries have much in common. For athletes as for the rest of us both injuries can appear out of the blue; the exact causes are often not entirely known; neither is chosen, and neither can be patently willed away.

Body and mind must cooperate if we are to succeed, and they often do, and have often done for Biles. Similarly, both can derail our pursuit of worthy goals. Both the body and the mind can break, act in defiance of our wishes and years of training and fail us when we call on them to help.

Biles’s willingness to speak with honesty and openness in describing her mental injury experience—coupled with her record of off-the-charts athletic greatness--are no doubt helpful in the process of correcting old misperceptions and ushering in a more constructive conversation about human health and functioning.

The Courage to Speak About Failure

Yet there’s another conversation to be had here if we are to move forward with educating ourselves about mental health, and that is a conversation about failure. Biles came to Tokyo to win gold medals. Something about her mental apparatus has gone out of alignment, rendering her unable to compete and win. She has thus failed in her original mission. The fact that a new, more worthy concern—to repair an injured psyche—has emerged does not invalidate this loss.

Had Biles withdrawn because she had injured her calf, rather than her mental confidence, her many supporters would not have been so reluctant to express disappointment and lament her lost opportunity and shattered dream. An acknowledgment of her failure and loss would have in that scenario become a part of the empathetic, supportive discourse, rather than—as is the case now—being hijacked by hateful Internet trolls.

A reluctance to speak of failure in this case betrays another double standard, and points to the work that is yet to be done in making mental health difficulties and their attendant cost as acceptable as physical ones.

One may argue that in the final count athletic success is quite meaningless compared to one’s mental and physical health and safety. But athletic success has not been meaningless to Biles. It has been an important aspect of her purpose, her identity, and her livelihood. We must therefore assume that the athletic failure and loss are not meaningless to her. A silence on this from Biles’s supporters may amount to unwitting disrespect, an invalidation of an important aspect of her experience.

In fact, our reluctance to publicly speak empathetically about failure and loss is quite akin to the reluctance to so speak about mental health challenges. And since we are now more willing to honestly engage the former, we should have the courage to also engage the latter.

Athletes, like the rest of us, fail repeatedly in life. Sometimes our bodies fail us, other times our minds do, and yet other times both act in concert to foil our goal-directed efforts. The only person to never fail is the one to never try. The person who never tries never learns. And because one can live well only through learning, that person fails to live. In other words, failure and loss are painful yet necessary features of living fully. There’s personal courage, and social progress, in our willingness to acknowledge, accept, and deal with this fact. It's ok to admit to injury, mental or physical, and it's ok to acknowledge the resulting failure and loss, Olympic or otherwise.

Finally, mental, and physical injuries exist on a continuum. We may overcome or disregard the light ones without incurring significant risk or loss of skill. We cannot ignore the serious ones. A lightly sprained ankle can be taped and competed on without risking the athlete’s health or hindering their competence significantly. A broken neck cannot. Pre-game jitters can be ignored; the ‘twisties’ not so much.

Athletes, and the rest of us, are often called to decide whether a certain goal is worth the potential physical or mental costs. Should I keep playing despite the risk of long-term damage to my joints? Should I keep driving even though I’m falling asleep? Should I keep my well-paying job despite the stress and burnout? Should I stay in a comfortable yet loveless relationship? Etc.

This question is personal, and the equation underlying it is not all-or-nothing. Many people sacrifice a measure of their physical and mental health in the pursuit of meaningful goals or valued ends. Biles has certainly done so for many years. Among other things, her case draws attention to an aspect of our sports—and by extension our society—that’s often left unspoken: single-minded personal striving and cutthroat competition, two bedrock American values and powerful engines of progress and identity, exact a price, even from the winners. Many of those who drive relentlessly to achieve pay with their health, both mental and physical. This is true in and out of athletics.

At the same time, it is also a fact that a wholesale inability to tolerate discomfort or endure pain—both physical and mental—bodes ill for our ability to grow our skills, achieve important goals, and deal well with the inherent toil of existence. Life, after all, is itself a chronic and terminal condition.

Mental health resides neither in gung-ho, never surrender, win-at-all-cost determination nor in avoidance, extreme caution, and a ‘safety first’ compulsion. An army is much more likely to win the war if it knows when and how to charge and when and how to retreat. Similarly, mental health resides in our psychological flexibility, in having myriad tools in our toolbox and knowing when and how to use each. Caught in a game of tug of war, sometimes the wisest move is to pull harder. Other times it is to let go of the rope.

Mental health resides also in our willingness—as a culture and as individuals--to acknowledge and manage without shame or denial both mental and physical injuries; it manifests, too, in our ability to likewise acknowledge, accept, and learn from our attendant failures and losses.

If the arc of history indeed bends toward enlightenment, then Simone Biles will be remembered as a champion of humanity because of Tokyo. She'll be remembered as a gymnastics champion despite Tokyo.


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