What Do We Really Mean When We Talk About an Athlete’s “Mental Toughness”?

Simone Biles is pulling out of the individual all-around competition in Tokyo, citing her mental health. But don't you dare call her "mentally weak."

July 28, 2021 10:56 am
Simone Biles
Simon Biles of USA falls before retiring from the event during the gymnastics artistic Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Getty Images

On Tuesday, after getting lost in the air on a vault, completing just one-and-a-half rotations instead of two-and-a-half and earning the lowest score of her career on that apparatus, Simone Biles pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final, citing mental health issues. Now, the greatest gymnast of all time has announced that she’s pulling out of Thursday’s individual all-around competition as well.

“After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games, in order to focus on her mental health,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement on Wednesday morning. “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”

Sadly, not everyone feels that way. Since Biles first dropped out of the team competition, the internet has been flooded with commenters who suddenly fancy themselves to be experts in women’s gymnastics weighing in and criticizing her for somehow letting her team down. By not carrying on — thus risking catastrophic injury — she lacks “grit” or “mental toughness,” they claim.

On the one hand, it’s true that part of being an elite athlete is being able to remain focused and overcome adversity in high-pressure situations. Sports are, by their very nature, emotionally taxing. Being able to compartmentalize any nerves associated with performance, push through physical pain in order to win and bounce back from the agony of defeat is a necessary skillset for anyone hoping to be a successful competitor. But to imply that Simone Biles hasn’t already done that is asinine.

Biles didn’t become the most dominant gymnast of all time by being coddled; she somehow managed to persevere through unimaginable circumstances that go far beyond the pressures of her sport. She’s been through absolute hell as both a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar and physical and emotional abuse by former Team USA coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi, who starved her to the point where she had to break into the gym cafeteria at night to steal food. At age 24, she’s significantly older than most of her competitors now, but she made the decision to push through the aches and pains that come with age and remain active in the sport because she believed it was important for her to remain visible as a survivor. (Biles is the only Nassar victim still competing, and as she said in a recent interview, “I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side. But since I’m still here, and I have quite a social media presence and platform, they have to do something.”) Despite being regularly assaulted, overworked and underfed, she achieved a level of greatness in her sport that no one else has — one that likely will never be matched. How dare anyone imply she’s mentally weak!

Anyone who’s ever witnessed or experienced a panic attack knows that mental health and physical health go hand in hand. Simone Biles has been playing hurt, and her injuries aren’t the kind you can just tape up or throw some ice on before moving on.

Knowing your limits is “mental toughness.” Making the decision to walk away while on the world’s biggest stage — knowing full well the firestorm of unfair scrutiny it will subject you to — is “mental toughness.” Advocating for your own well-being when no one else will is “mental toughness.” Coming back out on the sidelines to cheer on your teammates, bring them chalk for their hands and offer words of encouragement like “You guys go out there and do what you’ve trained to do. I’m sorry. I love you guys, but you’re going to do just fine. I love you. You guys have trained your whole entire lives for this” (as Biles did) while you’re still in the midst of a mental breakdown is “mental toughness.” Being vulnerable and speaking out about your struggles in front of the entire world isn’t weak or bad sportsmanship — it’s astoundingly courageous, it sets a healthy example for future generations of athletes, and it’s yet another reminder of why Biles is and will remain the greatest of all time.

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