Stiles: On Simone Biles, athletic pressure and mental health

Chris Stiles Sports editor

				                                Natacha Pisarenko | AP Photo
                                Simone Biles, of the United States, performs on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women’s team final at the Olympic Games Tuesday in Tokyo. Biles withdrew from the competition after this vault and has not competed since.

Natacha Pisarenko | AP Photo

Simone Biles, of the United States, performs on the vault during the artistic gymnastics women’s team final at the Olympic Games Tuesday in Tokyo. Biles withdrew from the competition after this vault and has not competed since.

The typical fearlessness of the best gymnasts in the world was on display by the competitors in Tuesday’s Olympic team gymnastics final — as was the courage of the sport’s best of all-time.

When Simone Biles withdrew from the competition — and hasn’t competed since — because of mental health concerns, she knew that in doing so the whole world would be made aware of the struggles in her head. In a sport that is overcoming, in more ways than one, its long-held culture of fighting on in silence, she could have chosen to fight through it and gone on to what might have been called a “bad day” by pundits who would have been unaware of her larger mental battles.

Instead, she was vulnerable in front of the world, suggesting Team USA’s medal chances were better if she didn’t compete the rest of the night. While what we’ve learned in the days since suggest she’s right, in the moment it was shocking to see someone so dominant drop out without physical injury.

As Team USA won silver without her, Biles was the best teammate imaginable — even while dealing with the frustration and uncertainty of this situation — showing what kind of a person she is. Her transparency throughout the week showed it too, even answering fans’ questions on Instagram.

While she hasn’t announced whether she’ll compete next week in the four event finals she qualified for, she’s openly described what she felt Tuesday, saying she was shaking before the team competition because the nerves were so intense, and that once she was on the floor she had the “twisties” — the gymnastics version of what us stick-and-ball-sport junkies call the yips — meaning her body won’t do what her mind knows how to do while in mid-air.

“(You) literally cannot tell up from down,” she said on Instagram Friday. “It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body. What’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have no idea how I’m going to land. Or what I’m going to land on.”

As she described, continuing routines as intricate and difficult as hers could have been very dangerous to her physical health. This is a sport where competitors have been paralyzed and even killed when a routine gone wrong led to a bad landing.

Biles said it’s happened before for brief amounts of time. It’s beyond unfortunate that it happened again at the Olympics, and in what is almost certainly her final Games. But it may have happened because it is the Olympics, given the expectations and hype around her as the face of these Games and the scope of what the Olympics represent in the sports world. It’s harder to twist with that much weight on your shoulders.

The shift of Biles’ feet on the mat in Tuesday’s vault, her one routine in the team final before her withdrawal, signifies a bigger shift in the broader discussion of mental health in sports. So does the withdrawal of Naomi Osaka — a big enough superstar she lit the Olympic cauldron last week — from tennis’ French Open due to mental health concerns earlier this year.

That these women are taking a step back to focus on their wellness, even when it means the world will know something is amiss, is a change from the more internalized struggles of previous superstars. Michael Phelps, now a mental health advocate, says he contemplated suicide because of the weight on him in the prime of his career. Tiger Woods’ affairs were the result of an extreme loneliness brought on by the combination of competitive pressure and his father’s death.

Like these stars — particularly Phelps as the previous face of the Olympics — Biles has faced exponential expectations. And it’s not that winning five individual gold medals and anchoring a team gold in these Games wasn’t unrealistic. But the thought that falling to silver in any event would be a failure is wholly unreasonable — and the burden generated by those expectations may have become unbearable.

This is why us media types have to be more careful about overhyping both teams and individuals — it often creates unfair expectations. As an example, if Zion Williamson goes on to a solid career as a perennial third-team All-NBA player, some may still consider that a letdown because of the buildup around his career; he just turned 21.

Small-town newspapers like this one aren’t part of the national media hype machine — but we can sometimes be guilty of it on a smaller scale for the teams we cover.

While telling the stories of local games, teams and players is what I’m here to do, I am very careful to avoid overhyping anything, which by extension could create added pressure. And I intend to never crucify an athlete for their mistakes on the field.

If I’ve ever added to the pressure felt by those I cover, I hope and pray that it hasn’t been detrimental to anyone’s mental health — especially considering I’m covering athletes at a more impressionable time of their lives who are often comparatively less equipped to handle the external noise.

I also hope those who face athletic pressure, from the high school level to the Olympics, realize their lives are worth more than just their competitive results. While it’s come as the result of a really tough week, Biles said she’s had that revelation based on the reaction to her situation.

“The outpouring love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before,” Biles said Wednesday on Twitter.

Indeed, being well is far more important than placing well for Biles and every other athlete. If Biles does decide to compete again later in these Olympics, I’ll be rooting for her — but whether she does or not, I’ll first and foremost be rooting for her in life.

Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.