How Mental Health Challenges Can Lead to Success

You know, it hasn’t even been two months since I wrote about how amazing Naomi Osaka is for looking out for her mental health, and here we are again. Our hero this time? Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast of all-time. Putting aside the fact that Biles doesn’t owe us anything (and in fact, has already given us more than we deserve), her decision to withdraw also shows us how important our mental health is – and how severe the consequences can be when we ignore it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Venn diagram of people who are criticizing Biles right now, and people who don’t follow gymnastics, is basically a circle. I won’t say I understand gymnastics that much better than anyone else, but over the years I’ve learned more about the mental aspect of gymnastics and its importance – as well as the consequences if focus is ever an issue.

It’s important to be 100% focused in any sport you’re competing in, but the consequences for losing focus as a gymnast can be severe. Over the past few days I’ve read experiences from other gymnasts who have talked about possible broken bones, even paralysis, that can happen when you lose focus in gymnastics.

This is probably the least equipped sport for a person to ‘power through’ and yet, any criticism coming Biles’ way is essentially repeating that unhealthy message as they give opinions on a situation a very, very small number of people could ever take part in.

There are many things about this situation that bring up important discussions on how we value athletes, the ways in which we do, and what we are owed as casual sports fans who are not actually invested in most of what we consume (for a more well-rounded discussion about this, you can read Lauren Leader’s article, “Simone Biles is showing us what exemplary feminist leadership really looks like“). But the main takeaway I got from all of this is that by putting her wellness first, Biles was not only taking care of herself – she was taking care of her team and giving them the best chance to succeed.

I primarily played baseball, basketball and soccer growing up. In the way I experience mental health struggles, the consequences of losing focus for a moment in these sports aren’t typically dire. Yes, there are always one-in-a-million accidents, but each of those sports gives you moments to take a deep breath and try to re-focus, or take yourself out momentarily and try to re-enter at another time. Gymnastics doesn’t offer that luxury, and losing focus – even for a nanosecond – can lead to a very severe injury.

I can’t say that I know her mental health struggles, but Biles seems very aware that mental health impacts everyone. And that includes a team of Olympic gymnasts. There are many other reasons why this was an incredibly brave and powerful decision, but this world’s attitude toward mental health and wellness can’t change without courageous decisions like this one. Thank you, Simone Biles.

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