For all parents and those of us living with mental illness, Simone Biles’ withdraw from Olympic competition this week is a teaching moment. The problem is, what do we teach?
Biles had to withdraw. No doubt about it. The fact that her mind and body were not in sync as she stepped up to attempt moves that in many cases only she, no one else on the planet, has been able to complete, risked a terrible injury and a sure loss for her team. Had she competed she may have hurt herself badly enough to end her career. Had she competed her scores would have been so low that there’d be no chance her team could win. So she left the floor.
This is not unprecedented in sports. A Cy Young award-winning pitcher can take the mound and pitch a no-hitter, only to come back five days later, not be able to keep his head in the game, and get shelled so badly that his coach pulls him out of the game early and replaces him.
In neither situation did the athlete quit. That’s the first distinction we have to make. If Biles or the pitcher were quitters they would not be competing in elite sports and we would never have heard of them. An elite athlete gives their life to their sport. They focus only on technique, fitness and competition. It’s when the focus blurs that trouble begins.
So we must keep in mind, and must teach our children, that Biles’ has never quit and neither should they. When things get tough you stick it out, you show up, you do your best. Right now Biles is in Japan practicing so that she can compete next week. If she gets her mind back into the state she, and her coach, need it to be she’ll take the floor. If not she won’t. She has spent a lifetime facing and overcoming adversity. She’ll know best. But she’ll try.
This is the lesson we must take away from this. It’s not OK to quit if you just don’t feel up to something or if things get too hard. But if an injury, physical or mental, makes it impossible to perform, you adjust as necessary. Maybe even withdraw. But then you get back at it and chase the goals you set for yourself.
Meaningful work is crucial to mental health and physical fitness. In every case we must continue to do the work. The lesson to never quit can be criticized. What, are we supposed to stay in a bad job or an abusive relationship? Of course not. But if we can do the work and accept that quitting is not an option we will withdraw from bad or dangerous situations and get back to being healthy. To surrender to fate and stay in a bad situation is to quit. To stay focused and to do the work required to excel enables us to continue to move toward our best.
Biles has the discipline to do this. We must develop it, too.
Then there’s the conversation about mental health that Biles’ and other athletes’ experience has intensified. In some sense this is a good thing. Any positive attention to mental health can help eliminate stigma, and most people place Biles’ example in a positive light. But her struggles are temporary and situational. A break in performance is not a mental illness. Biles, at least from her portrayal by USA Gymnastics, her coach and her interviews on NBC and other media, is not clinically ill. She can get up again and perform without severe medical intervention. She is not socially debilitated the way a person with severe bipolar disorder or schizophrenia is. We must not conflate attention on positive mental health with attention to severe mental illness. To do this pathologizes a problem athletes have faced as long as there has been sports. To do so minimizes severe mental illness to a condition one can just get over if they change their mindset. Neither is true.
Just as a person can have poor physical fitness without having a disease, a person can suffer poor mental health without suffering from a mental illness.
Let’s not lose sight of the people with true, serious, biologically-based mental illness through our efforts to normalize mental health challenges. In the broad scope of athletics and performance, in our efforts to teach the lesson “don’t quit,” we are normalizing what is normal. We must not lose sight of the people with mental illness whose troubles go far beyond losing a medal or getting pulled from a baseball game. Treatment for their conditions are much more difficult, and their lives are much more difficult, than anything Simone Biles faces.
Let’s reach out to Biles with acceptance and encouragement. But let’s not confuse her troubles with those faced by people with mental illness. It’s like equating the flu which keeps a person in bed for a few days with cancer, which can keep a person in bed and kill them.
Let’s keep a sense of perspective. Biles’ situation is unfortunate but she’ll get over it. A person with serious mental illness will not get over it. They may find meaningful work and good medication and manage their illness well, they may succeed in life. But they will deal with it for a lifetime, not the few years a person competes in sports or the few days of the Olympics.