At one time she was the best in the world – Olympic Gold medalist Simone Biles dominated the international scene in women’s gymnastics. She knew courage and knew how to win. On Tuesday morning the world saw the champion replace the fun of competition and pursuit of excellence with fear of failure. She allowed the fear demon to slither in and take control. She didn’t fight back. She didn’t connect to her courage center and do what champions do – face mental challenges.
She’s not a champion anymore and she set a terrible example for athletes all over the world. We also saw the opposite and a stellar example happening at the same time.
“My mental’s not there; I’ve just got to focus on myself.” Is what she told reporters after abandoning her team.
Imagine David Ortiz saying he’s too stressed to hit in the bottom of the 9th, or Michael Jordan whining he’s too scared to take the shot at the buzzer? What if Lyndsey Vonn told her coach she was feeling nervous and wants to go sit in the lodge? It would never happen. They are true champions and they couldn’t fathom giving in to fear.
Biles left the floor, and left her team mates frantic and shocked.
Biles put on her sweats and acted like a team trainer on the sidelines – she asked her team if they “needed anything, I’ll run and do it.” Yes, Simone, they need something – a teammate and leader they can count on. A teammate who won’t open the door for the Russians to break Team USA’s three-Olympic winning streak. A leader who puts the team ahead of feeling stressed.
Biles succumbed to ego and fear and let her teammates, and a nation, down. Winning and leadership depend on an athlete’s response to the tough moments. You have no choice but to step up and face them. Biles had some severe problems and didn’t face them. She quit.
Succumbing to pressure for a new athlete is a normal part of the maturation process. Athletes work on being present and in the moment – we visualize for thousands of hours at a time what to do when things aren’t going perfectly. As I wrote in Fear is Fuel the mental training I, and other athletes, undergo at the Olympic training centers focuses on letting go of ego, expectations and fear. You train to want the ball with one second left on the buzzer, not to walk off the court.
The Olympics is not everyday life – it’s not your office or your kid’s school. We shouldn’t applaud her for putting her mental health first. It’s the Olympics – the toughest test every four years of the most physically and mentally disciplined people on the planet. It’s not a place for taking the easy way out, for asking to sit on the therapist’s couch when you’re stressed.
Learning to let go of the fight-or-flight feelings and clear the working memory so you can get back to a state of flow is something anyone can master. But it’s not always easy. It’s most difficult on the world’s biggest stage – the Olympics. That’s why less than .0003% of people in the USA get to wear that red, white and blue jacket and compete to be the best of the best. Don’t belittle the games or the champions who do what it takes to win by comparing them with ordinary people.
Jordan Chiles quickly and unexpectedly replaced Biles on the uneven bars. She had no time to prepare or warm up – she experienced the ultimate level of stress.
We then saw the opposite of cowardice in BIles teammates – they performed under pressure and shock. Michael Jordan was a champion who performed better than anyone under pressure. Jordan Chiles was named after Michael and she made American proud on Tuesday morning. She acted like a champion deserving of being put on a pedestal.
The way Chiles stepped up off the bench and crushed her performance is how you rise to pressure and give it your best. That’s why she’s an Olympian. After her performance she said “It was for the team.”
Her motivation was altruistic and beyond herself. She was scared and surprised and shocked when Biles quit, but she pushed through it – that’s what winners do. Biles, a former Olympic champion and former legend will now forever be remembered as someone who put herself ahead of her team and her country. She will have to live with the regret of quitting.
Celebrate nothing that Biles did, it was neither brave nor exemplary. It was cowardice. Cowardice has no place at the Olympics. The stress and pressures are ever present to prove who is the best, that’s what makes Olympians so special. The pinnacle of global competition is not the place for self-care, taking a time out, or quitting.