Article written by Dr. Melinda Massoff, PhD, child and adult psychologist at Westmed Medical Group.
Simone Biles is one of the “Greatest of All Time” (GOAT) when it comes to the Olympics. She had been incomparable for years going into the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and was poised to forever solidify her legacy on the world stage. But this year, when the games rolled around she got the “twisties”, which gymnasts describe as a sort of mental block that can cause a person to lose control of their body. Simone Biles understood that she was in a mental place where her body was not doing what she was telling it to do. And for a gymnast, there’s no room for error when it comes to safety. We had never seen a GOAT voluntarily remove themselves from the spotlight for mental health issues before. We’ve seen professional athletes get what’s referred to as the “yips” (an inexplicable loss of control) where catchers who can no longer return the ball to the pitcher on a fly, golfers who lose the ability to putt and place-kickers suddenly shanking an easy kick.
When athletes have subpar performances because of mental as opposed to physical issues, fans make it a character issue. Fans who wouldn’t boo a most valuable player (MVP) who tore a muscle, would berate an athlete for “choking.” This illustrates the unfortunate (and misplaced) stigma that mental health is somehow different from physical health. As though our brain is not a physical organ like the rest of our parts that break down and need rest. There have been two categories of reactions to Bile’s withdrawal. One is old school, framing her decision as a character flaw. Fortunately, this seems to be a minority position. The predominant reaction has been to thank Simone Biles for being brave and telling the truth. And in her act of bravery, she allowed us all to acknowledge our own needs and those of others. The fact that Biles, the greatest of the greatest of all time, has made this decision to take care of herself so that she did not risk serious injury, removes the stigma for more of us, who might need more compassion towards ourselves and towards others. Her decision to prioritize her health and safety, although undoubtedly painful under these circumstances, was ultimately a positive for her, as evidenced by her recent tweet: “the outpouring [of] love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” Simone Biles’ bravery has broadened rather than diminished her outstanding legacy.