Defining Courage: Reflections on Simone Biles and Mental Health

After Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic competition for mental health reasons, I’ve taken some time to digest what she’s stated, and to read the opinions of others. As a mental health professional and as a former gymnast, I have several thoughts. I may not have new perspectives to offer that haven’t already been shared, but felt compelled to share nonetheless.

My initial reaction was that she’s exhibiting the courage of a true champion. She has proven countless times just how courageous she is out on floor (and the bars, beam or vault.) But now her decision to honor her vulnerability above an Olympic gold medal exhibits authentic and grounded integrity. It is character qualities such as these that I believe have played a role in her success. She knows her capabilities AND her limitations. She said, “We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human too…So we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out and do what the world wants us to do.”1 She has spoken of the immense pressure that she feels to live up to being the greatest of all time (GOAT). She has spoken of the twisties- a real phenomenon for gymnasts in which they lose sense of where they are in the air. She knows that attempting to perform her typical jaw-dropping moves under this condition could leave her paralyzed or even dead. She has also spoken of the union of physical and mental health when she said, “Mental health is physical health.”2  I’m so glad that such an accomplished athlete is proclaiming this truth! The brain is connected to the rest of your body through the nervous system. I am trained in a type of mind-body-based therapy called Brainspotting. The developer, Dr. David Grand, says, “What’s in the body is in the brain, and what’s in the brain is in the body.”3 And by the way, providing therapy for a world class athlete just happens to be how he discovered brain spots. Mental health and physical health cannot be separated, and we need to break this separation that has led to stigmatization.

It is also worth noting that this stigma pertaining to mental health is even greater for a woman of color. July was BIPOC Mental Health Month, bringing awareness to the unique mental health needs of BIPOC and barriers in receiving care. BIPOC are more likely to have experienced trauma as a result of discrimination. They may hesitate to seek care because of language and cultural disparities, socioeconomic disparities, stigma and fear, legal or immigration status, and provider bias or incompetence4. When you consider these factors and add on the pressure to be the greatest gymnast in the world as a person of color, I have even greater respect for Simone Biles in making this move unashamedly. I found an article that reflected upon her quote in a Glamour Magazine cover story that was released ahead of the Olympics in which she spoke about the struggles of Black women. She said, “I try not to think about it because I can’t afford to- If I let them rule me, they’re winning.”5 Well, by stepping away she allowed no one to rule her, and she is winning.

As I reflect upon my pre-teen and teen years as a gymnast, I remember being motivated to do the sport because it was fun and I liked the mental and physical challenges. I was not anywhere close to being an elite level gymnast, nor was I the anchor of my high school team, but I stuck with it for almost 9 years because I had AMAZING coaches who helped me to build confidence and discover my capabilities. The influence that these phenomenal people had in my life led me to invite one to accompany me to a senior awards banquet, and another to be in our wedding party. I really credit them for teaching me to take care of my mental health, even if that term wasn’t really used at the time. I know now that most of the elite level gymnasts training for the Olympics at that time did not have that gift. Instead, they were being physically, mentally and sexually abused under a warped system that allowed it to go on for way too long. In 1996 I remember applauding Kerri Strug’s bravery and determination as she did her famous vault with a broken ankle.  I too drank the Kool-Aid of celebrating victory at all costs. I didn’t consider that she might be under the pressure of an abusive environment, and she really had no choice. Thankfully, things are shifting as the trial of Larry Nasser brought to light so much evil that was covered up for years. All of those young women who bravely spoke about their trauma are truly heroes. Simone was among those women and she has been open about her mental health treatment that has helped her to heal. Thank you, Simone, for being a champion for mental health. For that, you deserve a medal!

  1. https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/olympics-gymnastics-biles-says-gymnastics-not-everything-we-also-have-focus-2021-07-27/
  2. https://www.si.com/olympics/2021/07/30/simone-biles-addresses-accusations-of-quitting-answers-questions-about-twisties
  3. Grand, D. (2013). Brainspotting: The revolutionary new therapy for rapid and effective change. Sounds True.
  4. American Counseling Association http://counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources/bipoc-mental-health-month
  5. https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/simone-biles-naomi-osaka-revolutionary-184104389.html

3 thoughts on “Defining Courage: Reflections on Simone Biles and Mental Health”

  1. Cristina says:

    Thank you for this helpful perspective, MaryAnn! Through her courage Simone was the voice of many other gymnasts! And we need to affirm it!

  2. Terrific post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very grateful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Thanks!

    1. Thank you so much for your feedback! I will consider how I can elaborate on these points in my future blogs.

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