Simone Biles has provided us with many innovative performances. This week he has once again crossed the limits of sport. Not by expanding her already extraordinary technical experience as a gymnast, but by challenging the persistent and macho narrative around what Olympic success and athletic strength should look like.
Biles follows tennis players Naomi Osaka at the French Open and Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon, who are not afraid to speak out in the global spotlight and place mental health on the same level as physical health. Unfortunately, all of them have had their integrity, athletic prowess and character questioned. Michael Phelps revealed the extraordinary pressures and mental health struggles he faced in a recent documentary called The weight of gold: The title says it all. Amid piles of gold medals and trophies, it’s hard to dismiss Phelps, Osaka, or Biles as “weak losers” (unless you’re a certain brand of tabloid commentator). That means we have to think again. We have surely had enough warning shots to realize the magnitude of the mental health crisis in sport, one that is also a mirror for society at large. It will take more than a few additional wellness consultants to tackle the problem.
Traditional sports narratives have focused for decades on physical and mental toughness, yet still stiff upper lip throughout. We have no end of sports heroes who exemplified these behaviors. The language is amplified by the media, dramatized by Hollywood, and exploited by the world of sponsorship and advertising. But it’s out of date and out of touch with what research shows is required for sustained high performance and well-being. Biles faced that myth head-on when he said in a Press conference They chose the “stronger” route of getting away from the competition, rather than just “keep fighting.”
While researching the idea of winning while writing my book, The Long Win, and understanding my own 10-year experience as an Olympic rower, I found countless successful athletes feeling empty, dissatisfied, even depressed after winning. Jonny Wilkinson has spoken about his desperate search for joy, chasing the next cap, the next medal, even winning the Rugby World Cup with England, but in his own words, “the joy never came”. Biles’s own story shows us the path from sporting joy to suffering. When winning doesn’t even seem to work well for winners, surely the time has come to reshape the sport.
Sports performance clearly requires mental abilities at the highest levels, so why do we still have a different reaction when performance is halted by anxiety rather than calf strain? Why do we think it is correct to “push” one, but not the other? These attitudes show the levels of prejudice, misunderstandings and poor mental health education that still prevail, a worrying situation considering the mental health crisis that many in sport and beyond have experienced as a result of experiencing long periods of isolation and confinement.
When you hear ex-professionals, coaches, experts, or fans say that athletes like Biles and Osaka should just toughen up, it reveals more about themselves and the worlds they were forced to survive. But Biles and a new generation of athletes want a change. For the sport to thrive in the future, it must move beyond the tired, macho cliches and sinister cultures that persist. The go-to defense in this primitive, last man standing, winning at all costs culture is to proclaim the “universal truth” that high-performance sport is tough and ruthless. This only maintains the status quo, which suggests that it is beyond challenge or improvement (never a good performance approach). Worst of all, it reinforces the idea that mental wellness is just one of the things you have to sacrifice hard enough if you are a true “winner.” This only guarantees a continuous spiral of increasing mental health problems, shorter races and, counterproductively, also slows performance. Nor does it attract newcomers to the sport.
Research has shown that one of the reasons Olympic heroes have not contributed to improved participation in sport is because the public feels they cannot relate to them or are beginning to imagine emulating them. A recent UKActive The study showed that the best sports role models for boys were teachers, not Team GB athletes. Perhaps if Olympians were allowed to show their human side, and it was celebrated not only through the narrow measure of whether they win a medal or not (which depends on so many external factors anyway), then there could be a greater enjoy and inspire sport, because both competitors and spectators.
I can remember the early years of my Olympic rowing career, when coaches only talked about who had the “will to win,” who was tougher and more willing to take whatever a coach threw at you without complaining. It was an environment in which you tried to survive, but could never thrive. Some teammates, coaches, and managers would ignore you or speak to you differently if you lost a race. It was hard to resist feeling that her results defined her identity. But that was a recipe for lowering self-esteem and, with it, lowering performance. It was only after a break from rowing (when I joined the Foreign Ministry) that a renewed perspective allowed me to realize that the sport did not define me. At that point, I was back to rowing and had my most successful stint, winning a world championship and an Olympic silver at the 2004 games in Athens. But more than that, he had found a different mindset and a fresh approach to the pursuit of sporting excellence.
Despite all of his incredible past accomplishments, Biles’ greatest contribution could be pushing leaders across the sporting world to give Olympians space to find purpose beyond a single moment on the podium. Take pride in your best performance, even when it doesn’t go as planned. Athletes have extraordinary talents, but they should not derive their individual worth through such narrowly defined prisms. Redefining what success means, broadening the lens through which we view sport, and changing the language we use could enable the best of sport: constant innovation, connection between communities, a drive for excellence and the potential for personal growth. , I got to the front. These bring aspects of lasting value to athletes beyond the podium. We have the opportunity to stop and really listen to Biles, to reflect without judging ourselves. High-performance sports could start to be healthy.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism