In full disclosure, I am not a gymnast and have never been a gymnast.
My concept of a strong vault implies a secure bank, and the only tumbling I’ve done has involved stairs and icy sidewalks. Prior to last week I thought “twisties” are what kept a bread bag closed. My idea of a floor exercise is one or two sit-ups, and uneven bars are probably something that can be fixed with the right tools. I can barely bring myself to watch as female gymnasts jump, spin, twist, and flip to land on a narrow wooden beam that I couldn’t inch across with gripper socks and extra-long ski poles.
But I am a licensed mental health professional and have been a counselor for 30+ years, so it’s not surprising that I’ve had people asking me in the past week for my reactions to American superstar gymnast Simone Biles dropping out of individual and team competition to “prioritize her mental health.”
My Initial Reaction
I was stunned and very disappointed that the greatest gymnast of all-time (male or female) and one of the top athletes in the world (in any sport) would not be competing for gold in the Tokyo Olympics. I was even more surprised by the expressed reason. The expressed cause for withdrawal was not an issue of physical health (i.e. illness or injury) but of one of mental health.
Mental Focus versus Mental Health
My early reaction was that there is a significant difference between Mental Health and Mental Focus. I still feel strongly about that. Out of the gate, my concern was that an elite athlete was re-labeling mental focus, concentration, drive, determination, and handling pressure as “mental health” issues.
That to me felt like an insult to the millions of people for whom mental health and mental illness is currently or ever has been a major struggle. In equating mental focus in the sports arena with mental health I felt that Biles along with the athletes and sports journalists rushing to her defense were not helpfully highlighting the problem of mental health and mental illness, but were in fact trivializing mental health and mental illness as a result.
My Revised Reaction
Having played competitive team sports in high school (basketball and tennis) and in college (tennis) I know what it is to step onto a court and be nervous about making mistakes. But I never once had to wonder whether a mistake would cost me more than points or a game. I never had to think that a lapse in concentration could result in a broken bone, a serious head or spinal injury, or worse. But a female gymnast is not unlike a football player or a race car driver in the daily taking of risks during practice and in competition. Mistakes can be painful, life-altering, and even deadly.
I mentioned “twisties” earlier. Biles reported struggling with them. The “twisties” happen to gymnasts when they are in the midst of a skill (usually while in the air) and something causes them to lose awareness of where they are in a rotation and in their relation to the ground. I can certainly understand that. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine a gymnast not having the twisties and not being disoriented in the air while flipping and spinning.
The Deeper Story
OK, but that’s still a mental focus issue, not a mental health issue, right? That’s correct. But here’s where’s the Biles story goes deeper and is more complicated. In 2018 Biles reported being one of over 100 top U.S. female gymnasts who were sexually abused by trainer Larry Nasser under the guise of him giving approved medical treatment. Biles has acknowledged having battles with depression as a result of the molestations and trauma.
Most of us are fortunate to have never been molested or sexually abused as a child or adolescent. Unfortunately, far too many have. And those men and women likely understand that such trauma and resulting depression and/or anxiety is not easily compartmentalized in order to maintain balance on a 4-inch wide wooden beam or in a 40-seat wood-paneled conference room.
At the end of the day, I don’t know what it’s like to be Simone Biles. I don’t know what it’s like to be an elite gymnast performing with extraordinary strength and agility in my arms, legs, and core while global sky-high expectations sit with earth-heavy weight on my shoulders. I don’t know what it’s like to be a young black woman in America. I don’t know what it’s like to be sexually abused by someone your coaches told you to trust. Not a single bit of that is a part of my experience. So, when it comes to judging Simone Biles, I’m going to pass and sit this one out.
Lastly, I’m all for generating widespread and serious conversation about mental health and mental illness. And to create dialogue doesn’t mean to control it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. To stimulate deep thinking and to create far-reaching conversation is to release full control of both, and to hope that wisdom finds a voice.
Ramon Presson, PhD, is a licensed marriage & family therapist in Franklin, (www.ramonpressontherapy.com) the author of multiple books, and a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. He can be reached at [email protected]