I would love to show up here and say that my first thoughts after hearing that Simone Biles had pulled herself from Olympic competition were:
“I hope she is ok.” or “How brave!” or even “What a team player, putting the team’s chance for gold first”
But I can’t. Because they weren’t. My first reaction was simply
“Wow. I can’t believe the pressure got to her of all people.”
It is a reaction that forced me to ask if mental toughness is actually contradictory to mental health.
After a lot of mental wrestling, I think I have arrived at a point of vague understanding of where Simone is coming from. While not on the same level as an Olympic competition, I get not feeling right on one of the biggest days of your life. Nine years ago today ironically, I was bowing onto a mat to test for my black belt. A test I had prepared years for. A test that had enveloped every moment of my ‘free time’ the previous 6 months of my life. A test that would come way too close to taking my life….literally.
I won’t go into all of the details but as the test started, my heart began to race. I am sure you can imagine the adrenaline dump that comes from having a 6’6” 250 lbs man attack you. Yes, that is how my test started.
My heart rate skyrocketed and never really came down. Turns out I had a previously undetected heart condition known as atrial flutter that kicked in. Looking back on it now, I had felt it before, including my recent training sessions leading up to the test, but feeling ‘off’ was no reason to stop. I was mentally tough. I was going to finish no matter what. I was going to earn that black belt. This was my time and nothing could stop me.
Fast forward 3 hours, through multiple self-defenses, grappling matches and sparring rounds vs. fresh black belts and I had robbed my body of all oxygen. I had suffocated myself through pure exertion – because I was mentally strong.
My mental strength led me to passing out on the mat. Crashing in the hospital. Enjoying a CareFlite helicopter ride to a better equipped hospital. Two days in a medically induced coma, three in the ICU and ultimately heart surgery to correct the afore mentioned atrial flutter.
My mental strength was anything but healthy in my case but I still struggled to see how Simone could step back from the world’s biggest stage. The phrases ‘Embrace the Suck’, ‘Love the Grind’ and ‘Nobody Cares, Work Harder!’ have prominent places in my journal, my decor and my wardrobe so it was just not computing.
But after putting myself in Simone’s situation and attempting to process it, I think I am coming around to see her perspective. A decision as monumental as pulling out of the Olympics would come down to three things, all of which could have a direct impact on how we deal with mental health in the workplace.
She was in physical danger
The job of an Olympic Gymnast is to hurl themselves either on or at apparatus in way that any mistake can lead to severe, career threatening injury (remember Kerri Strug? She never competed professionally after the 1996 games). Simone had the presence to identify in herself that her mental state was not right and would pose a direct threat to her physical health. Although many of us do not face the same physical threats when work goes poorly, several of us do. If the mental state of an electrical line worker is off, the consequences are dire. If a surgeon is having a hard time focusing, the patient is at risk. We have to empower our teammates to self-identify, without fear of consequence, when they may be putting themselves in physical danger.
She was committed to doing everything she could to ensure the US medaled
Simone knows that in order to bring home a team medal, every member of the group that is out there in the gymnasium floor has to give their best performance…not their best effort. When you are operating at that level, an alternate who is able to deliver 100% of their capability will score higher than Simone delivering 90% of hers. The right thing to do for the team was to give up her spot. This is actually the point that drove home the selflessness rather than the selfishness of Simone’s decision. She put team first. When was the last time you deferred a great opportunity to a teammate because they are more likely to perform? How often do you evaluate the situation and then ask who is best to address it within the organization regardless of tenure or position? Probably not often enough. I know I don’t do it enough.
She is secure in her identity as a champion
I can only imagine that Simone was able to walk away from the possibility of being an Olympic Champion because she is already secure in her identity as an Olympic Champion. Kerri Strug made the final vault, ending her career, because her coach told her she had to in order to secure the Gold Medal for Team USA. An assumption that turned out not to be true. The US would have won the Gold either way based on the Russian’s floor performance that followed Kerri’s amazing effort. As leaders, are we continually assisting our teammates in building a champion’s identity? Do they have the confidence that their performance towards a singular goal is not identity defining?
I don’t plan on taking my foot off of the gas anytime soon and you will definitely still see me doing my best to be the hardest worker in the room. But I think Simone and her decision has taught me to have more empathy for those who choose a different path. Those more in tune and self-aware than I.