Simone Biles And The Un-Sexy Truth

In Mental Toughness
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I’ll start by asserting two truths. 

 

1) Simone Biles has mental health issues that she chose to address. 

Since we can’t see or touch her mind, we must accept her at her word and respect the fact that her personal needs are more important than competing in the Olympics (for now; pending next week’s individual events that she still may compete in). 

 

2) Simone Biles quit on her USA teammates. 

 

Both are true. 

 

In case you have no idea what I’m referring to, Simone Biles is the star of the American Gymnastics team, a woman who burst onto the sports scene at the 2016 Rio Olympics by winning 5 medals (4 gold & 1 bronze), 4 of them individual medals. 

 

Simone has been labeled the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in gymnastics. She has embraced the label, wearing a GOAT logo on her performance leotards “to hit back at the haters” (we will come back to this later, because it matters). I didn’t know gymnasts had haters, but OK, fine. 

 

In episode #1777 of the Work On Your Game Podcast, I told you that The Truth Is Rarely Sexy. 

 

That episode was about the media (mainstream + social), which habitually sensationalizes stories in a competition for likes, clicks and attention. Attention drives revenue, and people at Twitter, CNN and FOX all have to eat and pay bills just like you and me. 

 

That same idea about the truth not being sexy applies with the Biles story. 

 

One side of the media says Simone should be honored as a hero for putting her mental health needs before what everybody wants from her. 

 

The other side says Simone is a quitter who disgraced herself and her team by bailing out after a subpar opening performance in the gymnastic competition. 

 

The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. 

 

***

 

A young athlete once commented on one of my YouTube videos asking for some help with basketball. I gave him my email address and told him to reach out to me. He replied asking if I was on any social media platform where he could DM me instead, because “email is for old people.” 😆. 

 

We are living in a new era. 

 

In this era, feelings matter more. 

 

Participation trophies were created because some kids (and their parents) felt left out of the circle when the winners were announced. 

 

A known person receiving criticism on social media is labeled a victim of “abuse.” 

 

And when an athlete like Biles leaves an event due to a “mental injury,” we are told to give it the equal weight of a physical injury. 

 

Based on the many definitions I’ve read, mental health encompasses everything happening between the ears. 

 

Back in the day, that was the stuff that you kept in, sucked up and worked through. Now, it’s a serious aspect of the human condition that must be acknowledged, regardless of when or how it shows itself. 

 

This is life in this new era.

 

I was born in 1982. Back then, if a parent grew annoyed with a crying child, you’d be told to shut up that crying or you’d be given “something to cry for,” aka an ass-whooping right there in the grocery store. Today, I’m not sure if parents even hit their kids anymore. 

 

I witnessed sports coaches in high school, college and pro locker rooms berate players to tears and never think to apologize for it. Today, those coaches would lose their jobs over such incidents. 

 

When I was being recruited to play college basketball, my soon-to-be coach warned me: “If you come here, I’m not going to be overly concerned with your feelings.”

 

That’s what it was. I took that with me, through sports and into business. It’s ingrained in me. It’s no wonder my brand is all about Discipline, Confidence & Mental Toughness now. 

 

As a child of the 80s and 90s, and also as a male playing sports in Philadelphia, feelings didn’t matter. Boys were ridiculed for showing emotion. A football or basketball player who was mentally out of it? It must be “that time of the month” for him, we would joke. If you were hurt — but not injured — you were expected at practice every day. 

 

Toughen up. 

Man up. 

Stop being a b*^%#. 

 

The impulses that we now call mental health, back then we were conditioned to convert into anger and action. There was no time for processing or feeling, lest you get left behind by a train that wasn’t slowing down for you and your feelings to catch up. 

 

There are interchangeable pros and cons to that conditioning. Meaning, the pros could be cons, and the cons could be pros. 

 

Pro: You built mentally tough and disciplined people who pushed back against circumstance, even if the circumstance was in their own minds. 

 

That’s me. 

 

Con: A generation of 30-50 year olds who see mental health as a possible catch-all “excuse” that anyone could use the moment things aren’t working in their favor. 

 

That’s also me. 

 

The truth is never sexy. 

 

***

 

Mental health matters. 

 

If someone is going through some things in their mind, even though we can’t see it, we have to respect it.

 

Simone Biles is going through things mentally. I can understand that, with her being the face of a country and the biggest star in the whole Games. All we can do is accept it. None of us can read minds. If her mind needs a break, then her wish should be respected. 

 

This is all true.

 

Some people have gone as far as to call Simone Biles a hero for what she did. That her example, on the world stage no less, will give other athletes the courage to speak up and sit down when their own minds are overwhelmed with pressure and expectations. 

 

I agree — that there will be more athletes pulling out of events and games because of this example. I think the “hero” label is a stretch over-correction used to counteract those who are questioning Simone’s mental toughness. 

 

Here’s what else is true. 

 

Simone Biles is a member of a team. 

 

On a team, every player has a role. Simone’s role is to be the best gymnast on Team USA. The team arrived in Tokyo expecting their best player to do what she does, along with all the other players filling their respective roles. 

 

Let’s be clear though. Just because you’re the best player doesn’t mean you’ll always be amazing (though you are most of the time). 

 

Twenty-six times, Michael Jordan famously confessed, he’d been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. Tom Brady throws interceptions. Goalies give up goals. 

 

Simone had a bad start to her day for Team USA (she registered an uncharacteristically low score on her first vault attempt, then pulled herself out of the team event). That kind of stuff happens, even to star players. We notice it more because everyone’s watching the star player. 

 

But the star players keep playing. They either turn things around or they don’t — but they keep playing and finish the game.

 

Simone Biles quit. 

 

This is true. 

 

You leave your team in the middle of a game, you quit. The why behind her quitting doesn’t change the fact that she did indeed quit. And while it’s one thing to quit when you’re the only player on your team (such as in boxing, golf or tennis), it’s a different thing when you’re the star of a team that’s counting on your presence. 

 

Even if your game is not there, your presence inspires your teammates to do their jobs. Simone left them to fill her role and win gold. They couldn’t (Team USA won silver; Russia took gold). 

 

GOATs don’t leave their team on the battlefield, even if the GOAT is having a bad day.

 

Whenever people tried to call Michael Jordan the GOAT of basketball, he always demurred. 

 

Everything I did, MJ said, was built on top of what the players before me did. And the next generation of players after me will build on my work. So it’s not fair to call anyone to Greatest when we all stand on each other’s shoulders. 

 

Simone didn’t push off the GOAT title. She embraced it. Being the GOAT is a package deal. 

 

What’s in that package? Pressure. Expectations. Naysayers. Criticism. More expectations. 

 

Simone pulled out to tend to her mental health, which sounds like that GOAT pressure messed with her head a bit too much. 

 

This doesn’t make her bad, wrong, or weak. It makes her human. 

Leaving your team in the middle of competition makes you a quitter. 

 

Truth is never sexy. 

 

***

 

I hope Simone Biles makes the decision that’s best for her long-term mental and physical health. 

 

If she returns for individual events next week (which she is favored to win), this will be quickly forgotten. If she sits out the remainder of the Games and retires from competitive gymnastics, some will praise her for prioritizing herself while others will trash her for only thinking about herself. 

 

Neither side is right or wrong. It’s just the truth. 

 

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