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It was a stunning moment last week when Simone Biles, arguably the best gymnast in the world, did a simplified version of her planned vault, landing shakily on her feet. For those unversed in the details of gymnastics, television commentators explained that Biles had “gotten lost in the air” and had done fewer flips and turns off the vault than planned. This was bad, very bad, they warned.
Biles quickly huddled with her coach and left the venue floor with a team doctor. She emerged a few minutes later and packed up her backpack.
She was withdrawing from the team competition, she explained, because the “mental’s not there.”
“I say put mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” Biles said at a press conference last Tuesday. “So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.”
The recriminations (mostly on social media) were quick. Biles was a quitter. She let her country and her team down with this selfish move, critics charged.
But, those who know gymnastics — and humanity — pointed to Biles’ bravery and smarts in stepping away from her sport, even in the glare of the Olympic spotlight, when a wrong turn or bad landing could end in grievous injury, and even death.
Biles, who endured sexual abuse at the hands of a USA gymnastics doctor, was not being selfish or a quitter. The 24-year-old gymnast, who has won three dozen medals — including four Olympic gold medals — and wowed audiences around the world, was doing the smart thing to prioritize her mental health.
Her teammates stepped up, some with no advanced notice, and performed amazingly. The team won a silver medal. Suni Lee won the all-around gold and a bronze on the uneven bars. Jade Carey won gold in floor exercises and MyKala Skinner won silver in the vault. Biles may return for the balance beam competition on Tuesday.
What lessons can the rest of us, who can’t do double-twisting doubles or a Yurchenko double pike, take from Biles’ decision?
First, as the saying now goes, it is OK to not be OK. It should be OK to acknowledge to your friends, family and employer that you are struggling. If you were ill or had a broken leg, you most likely wouldn’t keep that hidden and continue to work or manage your family’s busy schedule. You wouldn’t be called “weak” for taking time off. The same thinking should apply to mental wellbeing.
We understand that not all employers offer health insurance or paid leave and that not all health insurance includes comprehensive mental health coverage.
We also understand that many people rightfully fear judgment and retribution from their peers and others if they admit that they are struggling mentally and emotionally.
These are things that we all must address. It is one thing to encourage people to follow Biles’ lead. It is another to build systems, friendships and families that are understanding and supportive. Some of this work is concrete — such as changing the standards for insurance coverage and changing laws to require paid leave. Much of it also requires a change in attitudes.
Most of us have had times when we struggled emotionally and mentally. Perhaps we had strong feelings that we weren’t good enough for the job we had or the school we attended and feared being unmasked as an imposter, even though we have the qualifications and skills to do the work.
Many of us have had times when we’ve been overwhelmed with overlapping responsibilities. Balancing family responsibilities and work demands is never easy and when the demands of one or both increase, it can leave us feeling overwhelmed, panic and depressed.
Sometimes, too many bad things happen at once — a family member dies and another loses a job. Or a child becomes seriously ill when a major project is due.
For too long, we’ve been encouraged to handle it all, to work through the pain, to compartmentalize our grief and to, essentially, tough it out.
On the world stage, Simone Biles showed us that this isn’t the only answer. Stepping away, taking time to work through our stress, grief, fear — whatever it is that is impairing our lives — is not a cop out, it is essential.
Again, we realize that not everyone has this luxury. But, it is what we should strive for. For the well being of ourselves and our friends, neighbors, coworkers, family and people we don’t even know.