You know, it’s been less than two months since I wrote about how great Naomi Osaka is for taking care of her mental health, and here we are again. Our hero this time? Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast of all time. Aside from the fact that Biles owes us nothing (and has already given us more than we deserve), her decision to retire also shows us how important our mental health is – and how serious the consequences can be if we ignore it.
I’ll get on my nerves and say that the Venn Diagram of people criticizing Biles and people who aren’t doing gymnastics is basically a circle. I’m not going to say that I understand gymnastics better than anyone, but over the years I’ve learned more about the mental aspect of gymnastics and what it means – as well as the consequences if focus is ever an issue.
It is important to be 100% focused in any sport you compete, but the consequences of losing focus as a gymnast can be severe. In the last few days I have read experiences from other gymnasts who have spoken of possible broken bones, even paralysis, that can happen if you lose concentration while doing gymnastics.
This is probably the least equipped sport for a person to get through, and yet any criticism that comes down Biles’ path essentially repeats that unhealthy message as it expresses opinions on a situation that is a very, very minor one Number of people could ever attend.
There are many things in this situation that spark important discussions about how we value athletes, how we do it, and what we owe as casual athletes who are not really invested in most of what we consume (for the better-rounded discussion of that you can read Lauren Leader’s article, “Simone Biles Shows Us What Feminist Leadership Really Looks Like”). But the most important takeaway from all of this is that by putting her wellbeing first, Biles wasn’t just taking care of herself – she was taking care of her team and giving them the best chance for success.
When I was a kid, I mainly played baseball, basketball, and soccer. The way I experience mental health problems, the effects of brief loss of concentration in these sports are usually not bad. Yes, there is always one in a million accidents, but each of these sports gives you moments to take a deep breath and try to refocus, or switch off for a moment and get back in at another time. Exercise doesn’t offer that luxury, and loss of concentration – even for a nanosecond – can result in very serious injury.
I can’t say I know her mental health issues, but Biles seems very aware that mental health affects everyone. And that includes a team of Olympic gymnasts. There are many other reasons this was an incredibly bold and powerful decision, but this world’s attitude towards mental health and wellbeing cannot change without bold decisions like this one. Thank you, Simone Biles.