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Simone Biles Proves We Still Get Mental Health Wrong - And How Hustle Culture Prevails

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

US Olympic gymnast Simone Biles at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. Standard License Purchased. A.RICARDO / Shutterstock

Congratulations to Simone Biles who won bronze in the final women’s gymnastics event at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics: the balance beam.

But a week ago the greatest and most decorated gymnast of all time was trending for different reasons.

"Simone's injured!"

My brother gives me frequent updates on the Olympics because frankly, I'm too busy trying to grow my blog and too scatter-brained to walk and chew gum at the same time.

"What?!" I yell back, "injured? How? Where?"

"I don't know. Twitter thinks it's her leg. She's wearing a brace or something. But something's up. They're saying medical reasons."

"Huh. That's odd," I thought.

The Olympics is real-time so at this point there seemed to be more questions than answers.

"Sooo, we're just assuming it's a physical injury? What happened?"

My brother shrugs and I go back to peering at my laptop. Eventually the world learns that the six-time gold medalist had a case of the "twisties" which essentially means she lost her bearing mid-air and landed disheveled while performing a vault. She went on to say in an Instagram Q&A on her stories she has no idea how she landed safely, but was thankful she did.


Instagram: @simonebiles

What spectators initially interpreted as a minor injury turned into Simone's withdrawal from the team competition, the all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor exercise competitions at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The GOAT exited these competitions because her mental health (mainly stress and anxiety) was affecting her performance. Ultimately, for the sake of sportsmanship, she decided she didn't want to cost her team a medal. But more importantly, she needed time to focus on healing her mental well being so she wouldn't cause herself physical injury.

The world's reaction was one of initial shock and quickly turned to overwhelming support - but for all the wrong reasons.

Seemingly positive memes like this one captioned: "What does this woman have to prove to anyone" on a picture of her ladened with gold medals prove the glaring contradiction.

We're essentially saying that because she HAS proven she's the best that this is the reason she deserves to look after her mental health.

This perpetuates that:

  • had she not raked in gold medals and been the work horse she was,

  • had she not yielded results through burn out, pressure and expectation,

  • had she not pushed her body and mind to the limit where it could have cost her her life

we would not have been okay with her taking a break.

This was ceaselessly reiterated on social media.

And here lies the problem.

Hustle culture and burn out culture have tricked us into believing that we need to earn self care. It's even evident in many company timesheets where employees earn vacation time and SICK LEAVE based on hours worked.

We've detached the psyche from the physical form and Simone had to bring that all full circle for us by explaining that her mental was affecting her ability to perform.

We only align the mind with athleticism when we speak of persistence, positive thinking and perseverance. We expect that these things propel athletes to greatness. We never imagine how that pressure can have the OPPOSITE effect.

As a society, we celebrate "resilience" that isn't resilience at all. It's physical and mental abuse. And because athletes are penalized if they are anything less - both socially and by the various organizations that employ them - we perceive it as sportsmanship to exist in toxic work environments.

Think Naomi Osaka who dared to oppose after-match interviews because of social anxiety. She had the guts to say, yeah, I'll pay that $15,000 fine because one, she could afford to (we stan!), but also because she was trying to preserve her mental health - which affects how she does her job.

Again, something that we would never tie to her craft because we as a society isolate our work from our being. We say things like, "your career doesn't define you." And it doesn't. But let's be clear. Our careers do AFFECT us. The question is how can we reign things back to not experience burn out?

What is the cost?

Where is the limit?

And who determines when we've passed that test?

Simone assessed the cost and realized how important it was to put herself first. Had she not, it may have cost her a whole lot more than a medal.

The question to you, dear reader, is how great is the cost?

What are you willing to pay for accolades? Or to not let someone down? Or to not be seen as weak?

Some of Simone's detractors alluded that other GOATs would never drop out and never complain. We are taught to never complain even if "complaining" looks like saying "I am not okay, and I need help."

Who's to say that athletes across the globe aren't suffering, but suffering in silence?

A final thought is that the world still does not understand true empathy. Empathy for Naomi and Simone were contingent on their abilities. We gave them a "pass" because of their accomplishments.

Mental health doesn't discriminate like that. It doesn't choose gold medalists and accomplished tennis players who need a break. It affects teachers who are overworked and underpaid, nurses who are physically abused by patients, entry-level employees who's voices are stifled and kids who are bullied at school.

It also manifests itself in various forms through coping mechanisms that are either demonized or celebrated (let's not even talk about how Sha'Carri Richardson losing her mother is minimized to shame her because of her choices). Sometimes those manifestations are so discreet that we're patting broken people on the back for how well their HIDING their mental health issues, not how well they're managing them.

We feed the ego of a monster that's whipping its host when we congratulate people for perceived strength in times of trauma.

As a society, we only grant empathy if we think the discomfort is warranted. We operate on the bias that if I can handle it, then so can you, but if I CAN'T handle it then you get a pass.

This is cruelty. I'd rather someone say nothing at all then try to negotiate my trauma.

We may not be doing difficult twists and somersaults but that does not mean that you do not deserve grace when you feel yourself "getting lost in the air."

And if society won't grant you that grace, if your workplace, friends and community won't grant you that grace - you grant YOURSELF that grace.

Because Simone didn't wait for permission. No, she TOLD them she needed a break. And she took that break.

Take a page from the Book of Simone and let the world wait.

And while they wait, heal.

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