I’ve always had very ambivalent feelings about the Olympics. On the one hand, they represented extraordinary determination, commitment, and courage. It was astonishing and moving to see what human beings could physically and mentally achieve. And it was impossible not to cry: either to vicariously celebrate moments of incredible success or to empathize with heart-wrenching moments of unhappy endings. However, there was always a subliminal message attached. You are supposed to do the vault and stick the landing with a broken ankle. You complete your dives even when your head hits the board. You sacrifice your physical wellbeing for the team and your country. And “defeat” was implied if you came home with anything less than a gold medal. The fact that you made it to the Olympic team or the final events never seemed to matter. In past Olympics, athletes from certain countries were actually made to apologize for “shaming” their homeland for not bringing back Gold. Think about the message this gives to young people who already operate for adolescent brains that view the world and themselves in “all or nothing” terms. If nothing less than perfection matters, it explains why millions of people walk around not feeling “good enough.” And the long-term reverberations of that mindset can be devastating.
The idea that an athlete is not entitled to protect their mental and physical wellbeing is horrifying and sends a terrible message.
And everyone colluded with these ideas — until Simone Biles. I want to publicly applaud her decision to bow out of competing for mental health reasons. In a tweet, a Texas official called her “selfish, childish and a national embarrassment.” He should be embarrassed. The idea that an athlete is not entitled to protect their mental and physical wellbeing is horrifying and sends a terrible message. Whether you are an Olympic athlete, a tennis star, or someone who is being traumatized in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, you should never be shamed and always be encouraged to engage in self-protection, self-advocacy, and self-care. As therapists, we can use the example set by Simone Biles to help promote this idea to our clients. Her decision to listen to her body and mind and do what she needed to do to take care of herself despite outside pressure to ignore her needs and feelings can help to normalize our clients’ right to do the same thing. Inner peace, self-compassion, kindness, and solid mental health should always take precedence over winning a medal.