Mental Health and the Olympics in a Pandemic
I feel compelled to weigh in as both a professional and a former gymnast about Simone Bile’s decision to priorituze her mental health and step down in the height of one of the biggest competition days of her life. It was shocking to me as well as I’m sure to many as she has been so solid and unwavering as a gymnast for many years. However, it puts into perspective how much pressure she has been under as a gymnast and as a human being.
As a trauma therapist, I am immediately drawn to the fact that Simone Biles was a foster child, a fact that I am not sure was widely known until recently. I was also unaware that her brother was tried and acquitted of murder several years ago. I am unsure of whether she has been in therapy or dealt with these issues, but I do know that trauma can have a way of sneaking up on us and negatively impacting us at inconvenient times. Like at the Olympic games during a global pandemic when one of your teammates gets COVID, you are not being scored at your value and you haven’t slept well the night before.
When we find ourselves commenting about how Simone should or shouldn’t have responded, we are casting judgment on someone’s actions that really aren’t our business. None of us are in Simone’s head and have any idea what was going on. I can tell you I observed such a huge change in her from right before her first and only vault when she looked so down, and even fragile, something I am sure none of us have seen on the greatest gymnast off all time. However, I was shocked at the difference in her demeanor once she made that decision and returned to the floor to cheer on her teammates. She literally looked like the weight of the world had been lifted off of her shoulders.
For those of you saying she should have picked a different time and what about the other competitor’s whose place she took, I challenge you to think of a more convenient time to have a bad day or get a physical injury. There is no convenient time to struggle with mental health. In fact, I challenge you to think of a better time to raise awareness of mental health and take steps towards putting not only athlete’s but all American’s mental health as a priority. Anyone who has followed women’s gymnastics over the years or watched what unfolded regarding Larry Nassar’s trial must know by now what little value was given to the athlete’s mental or physical well being through the last several decades.
I have spent hours counseling mom’s who were at their breaking point due to the demands of child care and trying to work from home only to be penalized and punished by their supervisors. I have heard seniors struggling with feeling isolated and disconnected from others but also terrified of getting COVID and dying or exposing someone else they love. I have worked with young adults who have misse dout on some of their most important moments due to COVID. All the while I have struggled with the demands of being laid off, starting my own business and making some of the most difficult decisions I have ever made about how to keep my children and family safe. The same day Simone made the brave decision to step down for her own safety as well as the benefit of her team, I was crying on the phone to my mom feeling like I am at a breaking point in trying to cope with contiued demands and decision fatigue as the Delta variant runs through our area. To say we are all exhausted is an understatement, and every time we think we start to see a break, a new variant and a new challenge comes our way.
That being said, Simone set an important precedent that we all need to really think about. She made a decision to prioritze her mental health. The fact is, if she had not made that choice, because of the dangerous nature of the skills she performs, if she decided to try and push through and ignore her struggles, the results could have been catastrophic. I coached gymnastics for ten years at two different gyms and know two gymnasts that have broken their necks. So I ask you, how far should she have pushed herself if she was having an off day? I also ask, how far are you pushing yourself and do you need a mental health break? I can tell you I certainly do.
Find ways to refill your cup and ensure you are doing something you enjoy every single day. And if the one thing you thought would make you happy isn’t bringing you the same joy, take a lesson from Simone and give yourself a break. In DBT this is known as opposite action and taking a mini vacation. Instead of pushing yourself to the brink, take a break and do something different, something that will fill your cup in another way. The way Simone did when she took off her grips, put on her warm up and became the biggest cheerleader she could be for her team. I am hopeful that her actions will inspire others struggling with mental health to give yourself the grace and compassion you deserve. They certainly have inspired me.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health issue, there are resources out there. Here are some links:
The National Suicide Prevention hotline
Talk To Someone Now
If you're thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the…
The Alliance for Eating Disorders https://www.allianceforeatingdisorders.com/
the National Allaince on Mental Illness
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NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated…
If you are in the state of Florida and are looking for a therapist, I am accepting new clients as well.