Legendary Olympic gymnast Simone Biles announced on Tuesday her decision to withdraw from the women’s team events at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo after walking off the mat during the competition.
“No, mental’s not there,” Biles, 24, said of her decision, embracing the (often difficult) task of choosing to focus on her mental health over the intense level of athletics she’s been competing at for the entirety of her adult life — echoing similar sentiments from tennis champ Naomi Osaka from earlier this year on navigating the high pressure environment of being a highly visible athlete.
But, for Biles, who has been the centerpiece of United States Olympic promotion since she was a teenager, the mental health work is hardly new. In her 2016 book Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance, Biles shared a few moments of doubt, anxiety and, of course, pressure that she’d experienced ahead of intense high-stakes meets.
“Remember, you sometimes get like this before a big meet, Simone,” her dad told her. “It will pass. It always does.”
And she described how her sports psychologist Robert Andrews, founder of the Institute of Sports Performance and a consultant for USA gymnastics helped her navigate her feelings ahead of these big events.
“I buried my face in my pillow, seriously doubting that the pressure I was feeling would ever go away. My breath came in short gasps as I tried to control the crying,” Biles wrote. “…A few minutes later, Dad brought the house phone to me. My sports psychologist was on the other end of the line. I hadn’t talked to Mr. Andrews in several months because my schedule had been chock-full of workouts and competitions, sponsorship appearances and media interviews. Now, hearing Mr. Andrews’ steady voice coming through the phone, I broke down again.”
She shares how he told her she could “Go ahead and cry. You probably need a good cry right now” (a whole mood) and they had a real and raw conversation about the expectations everyone had for her and how it was affecting her brain and her performance.
Andrews had some pretty solid advice: “Well, you can’t really worry about other people’s expectations. You don’t usually do that, so don’t start worrying about that now. All you can truly control is committing yourself to practices and doing your best out there.”
She goes on to say that it was that advice that helped her recalibrate and truly get in the right headspace for her competitions that year.
And now there’s an echo of that in Biles statement, all these years later at 24, as she recognized that she once again had to put herself first instead of everyone else’s expectations: “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself when I came in — and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. So that just, like, hurts my heart, because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
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