Updated: Aug 2, 2021
The news of Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympic gymnastic team's final competition has hit a (raw) nerve in our society. It brings into question how we define and regard all kinds of things from "quitting" and "winning" to "team" and "health" as well as the discrepancies of how we view and treat different aspects of health.
Far from an athlete, let alone and Olympian, I can't even imagine what Biles has experienced/is experiencing in Tokyo. But as a transpersonal psychologist and someone with personal experience in taking a step back from work for mental health reasons, there are aspects of her decision with which I can identify and deeply understand.
As social media explodes with reactions on Biles' decision, the health of our society is on full display - just how unhealthy we have been (and in many ways continue to be) as well as steps we have taken/are taking towards wellness.
Health is multifaceted and to be unwell or hold any degree of illness in any one aspect will naturally affect the other aspects as well as our overall well-being. That we, as a collective, feel more comfortable with and prioritize the physical over the mental and emotional aspects of health shows just how unhealthy a society we are - just how much more work needs to be done to become a healthy society, one in which we value and support the health and safety of all its members; one in which we check in with ourselves about what's going on within us about how we're reacting to what's going on around us.
I'm heartened to see so much support for prioritizing the safety and health of our athletes, and the awareness of the connection between mental and physical health. Many athletes, especially those who compete on the world stage, understand and use this connection to enhance their performance. Some are all too aware of how this connection can increase the risk of physical injury, becoming a detriment to performance and overall health and wellness. To be proactive about this is of great benefit individually as well as collectively.
Of those who react to Biles' decision with the mindset of "She messed up and couldn't handle it, so she selfishly quit on her team," I ask: what makes you believe it is as simple as that? Not much in life is ever as simple as the "armchair expert" in us would have us believe - life is more complicated and messier than that.
Often, it's all too easy to play "Monday morning quarterback" and way more difficult to do the work of understanding. This includes the outer work of gathering more information than just a headline, soundbite, or singular news item, as well as the inner work of examining why we react the way we do before providing commentary. I marvel at how if we could even do just that much work, what a healthier society we would be - we'd be less likely to demonize/mythologize our public figures and more likely to see, honor, and discuss their humanity with compassion.
My experience with needing to step away professionally in order to restore my own health allows me a glimpse into how difficult a decision this was for Biles to make. I whole-heartedly support Biles' action in prioritizing her health and safety and by extension, the health and welfare of the women's gymnastic team. I applaud her courage and wisdom, and am grateful for what it means to others experiencing similar struggles to have this example. But I'm not as interested in discussing whether or not one supports Biles' decision as much as I am about discussing what leads one to that support or lack thereof.
When we hear this kind of news, it's an opportunity for those of us on the outside to open up true dialogue - conversations much larger than the typical ones of "She's right/she's wrong," or "I agree/disagree" or "She's a winner/loser." Moving beyond such topics of duality and opposition allows us to explore all kinds of ideas together.
Having larger conversations provides a multitude of avenues into "thinking together " and
gives us room to expand our understanding of important aspects of society such as "teams" and "health" or exploring different perspectives of the Olympic Games, competition, professionalism, athleticism etc. For example, in 2016, I got to participate in a conversation centered around the different costs (well beyond monetarily) of holding the Olympics. This exchange stretched me beyond what I would typically see, ponder, and discuss on this topic.
The news of Biles' decision provides us opportunities for exploring (within oneself as well as with others) not just what we think and feel about things, but also examining what we believe and value, places where we hold any cognitive dissonance, and whether our words and actions are aligned with our values. That takes work. Often it takes getting uncomfortable - something we'd rather not do. Such growing pains can be tough, but if we bear with them and each other, they can bring us to great new views and understanding.