As a former competitive athlete who suffers from anxiety, I have spent much time this week thinking about Simone Biles. My first reaction to her pulling out of the Olympic all-around events was admittedly selfish: I was disappointed. I wanted to see the GOAT win it all. I was excited to see her lead her team to glory as she flew through the air, nailing her signature moves. As the experienced Olympian on the team, I watched the way she had inspired her teammates when they were getting cold feet about stepping into the Olympic arena and competing at such a monumental level. She was the role model guiding the rookies through their first Olympic games. She seemed unstoppable, unconquerable, and undefeatable. She was solid, strong, and in amazing shape until she wasn't.
I don't know what it is like to compete on an Olympic level, and perhaps many of our daughters won't either. The weight of an Olympic gold medal for the country may never lay on the shoulders of many of our children. The press might not follow them around, snapping photos of their every move from what they ate at breakfast to who you spend your time with and what you wear. Regardless, their lives will come with their own share of strife. Simone Biles has shown us all that even among the best of the best, no one is perfect. Even if you can gain a perfect score, it comes with a price. By stepping down, she wasn't letting her team down; rather, she was gracefully taking time to heal. It just shocked a lot of people when it came from her, an athlete with limitless potential actually reached her limits.
There is so much to learn from Biles' decision to take the time to care for her mental health, for women, and especially for our daughters. We are given mixed messages early on. I was told to step out of my comfort zone, put on a stiff upper lip, or even to suck it up. Sometimes these are motivating, and effective, but more often than not the reason someone said these things to me was so that I would get over whatever I was feeling and press on. We know at this point with enough evidence that different genders are capable or incapable of doing the same thing, yet it still seems that there is a stigma when it comes to mental health for any gender that one who is struggling is weak.
As a parent, I have made efforts early on to allow my children to feel what they are feeling. I don’t want them to push past sadness, anger, or joy because someone tells them they aren’t allowed to feel the way they feel. I tried to acknowledge what they are upset about when they are sad, mad or frustrated. That being said, I strive to give them the tools to recognize their emotions and assess what is happening for them, so that they can learn how to process their feelings for themselves. I make mistakes all the time though and have heard words come out of my mouth when I am impatient, that contradict the things I have said when I am calm. When I heard myself say “you don’t have to cry about that.” I bit my tongue a bit too late. The words fell and left my messaging confusing.
We are all human. Some, like Biles, are capable of superhuman athleticism, but we can all learn from her to take time to care for our mental health when we need it. Even if the timing is terrible and there is a lot on the line, mental health comes first. Many of us get injured and injury needs to stop being looked at just as a physical issue. She is not a quitter in my book, but a winner for recognizing she needed help. It takes courage to choose to protect your health over winning a medal. This was not an easy decision and it took a lot of bravery for her to speak up about her needs.
The message her decision sends is one that has been long overdue, especially in the world of competitive sports. She was direct with herself and her needs. She took them seriously even as the world around her expected her to do something entirely different. Historically, we have seen athletes push themselves even when they are injured to the point of breaking. Simone Biles has already dealt with so much pressure, pain and trauma. She knew when to put her foot down for herself. That is worth more than gold.