Simone Biles' Withdrawal from the Olympics Sends Clear Message to Prioritize Mental Health
The Olympic athlete is a champion on how to deal with your mental well-being.
When six-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic all-around finals, she explained her decision using a term that was all but unknown to non-gymnasts: she was suffering from “the twisties”.
It’s a phenomenon that causes gymnasts to lose their sense of space and proportion while they’re twisting and turning in mid-air. Having “the twisties” is “the strangest, weirdest feeling,” Biles posted on social media: she “literally cannot tell up from down… It’s the craziest feeling ever.” While suffering from this condition, she has no idea of how she will land, or which part of her body will make contact with the ground first. The twisties can cause real damage and injury.
Rather than continue to compete with such a debilitating condition, Biles made the difficult decision to withdraw from competition. She tried overcoming it but realized that it was impossible: “I was just like shaking, could barely nap. I’ve just never felt like this going into a competition before…. I was like no, mental’s not there, so I just need to let the girls (her teammates) do it and focus on myself.”
Biles, like many Olympic athletes, has been facing huge stresses. Biles has revealed that she was one of the hundreds of athletes abused by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. When it came time to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, the isolation of quarantining added to the pressure. It also appears that Biles was not allowed to take the medication she takes for ADHD to Japan with her.
Her decision to step back comes a month after women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, citing her mental health concerns. “Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny…” she later wrote. Champion swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated medalist in Olympic history, has also revealed that he’s struggled with depression and even contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics.
These elite athletes might seem invincible but they face the same pressures that we all do. We might not all literally have “the twisties,” not knowing how we’ll get out of a complex athletic jump, but we can all identify with the terror of being disoriented and not knowing how we’re going to land.
“It applies to so many things,” notes Miriam Ament, Founder and Director of No Shame on U, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to eliminating the stigma associated with mental health conditions and raising awareness of mental health challenges. It’s not only elite athletes who can suddenly lose their nerve, she explained in a conversation with Aish.com, we all face moments of suddenly feeling uncertain and unsure.
Hopefully Biles example will inspire others to be unafraid to reach out when they have mental health needs.
Ament applauds Simone Biles’ decision to pull back from competing before she injured herself. “If we don’t prioritize our mental health, then something really bad can happen.” Hopefully Biles example will inspire others to be unafraid to reach out when they have mental health needs. “We need to understand that this can happen to anyone.”
Becky Salasche, a licensed clinical social worker in Highland Park, IL, agrees. Speaking with Aish.com, Salasche notes, “There’s a lot that we can learn from Simone Biles coming forward and making this statement that she needs to prioritize her mental health. No one is immune… Her actions to prioritize her mental health should inspire us all."
Being a GOAT – “Greatest of All Time” – a term that’s been applied to Biles, has its cost. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but...sometimes it’s hard hahaha!” Biles posted on social media shortly before the Olympics began.
Our insistence on designating her - and other figures in popular culture - as the “greatest ever” can be harmful for the objects of our adoration, and sets us all up for disappointment when they fall short of our expectations for them. "You have to remember they are human, and they have bad moments like all of us,” Miriam Ament says.
Simone Biles has taught us an important lesson in what it means to be a real champion: we need to prioritize our mental health.
The decision of when to step back and when to push through obstacles is an intensely personal one. Sometimes working towards a challenging goal can be incredibly rewarding. Yet Simone Biles reminds us that it’s also crucial to step back and prioritize our safety and well-being, and to ensure that we don’t hold other people to unreasonable expectations or standards which can be damaging.
Becky Salsche wants people to know that they can and should reach out for help when they feel they need it. “Speak out to the people in your life you feel most comfortable with.” That might be family, friends, co-workers or fellow students. Community mental health organizations can provide crucial support and advice for people in crisis or experiencing stress. “Whenever I talk to people about acute distress, I say that if you don’t know where to go call emergency services immediately."
Simone Biles has taught us an important lesson in what it means to be a real champion: we need to prioritize our mental health. We are all prone to getting “the twisties” at times, feeling adrift, confused, and unsure how we are going to land. There is no shame in turning to mental health professionals, using coping mechanisms, or taking steps to reduce the stress in our lives. “It’s important to pay attention to what your body and mind are telling you,” observes Miriam Ament. “It’s okay to not be okay and to reach out and seek help."