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The response to Simone Biles’ exit shows we still have a long way to go on mental health

Everyone’s eager to talk about wellness when it means bubble baths and meditation apps. But supporting mental health—especially when it’s inconvenient—is something we need to do better, whether on the Olympic stage or in the workplace.

The response to Simone Biles’ exit shows we still have a long way to go on mental health
USA’s Simone Biles looks on during the artistic gymnastics women’s team final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 27, 2021 [Photo: LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images]
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Heading into the 2020 Olympics, few athletes bore greater expectations than Simone Biles. The 24-year-old gymnast was supposed to repeat her dominant 2016 performance in Rio: Bring home team, all-around, floor, and vault gold medals, and debut a risky, high-flying new vault that would be the fifth original skill named in her honor. Talk about pressure.

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In the qualifying round, Biles handily earned the top spot in the all-around and vault, but in team finals, she struggled to find her “air sense” on vault. After a discussion with her coaches, she decided to withdraw from the competition to avoid risking injury and further errors, citing a case of “the twisties.” She stayed in the arena for the rest of the meet, cheering on her teammates who had stepped up to fill the void. Despite a strong showing, Russia ultimately secured first place, leaving the U.S. with silver.

As anyone who’s scrolled a social media feed in the past 48 hours knows, Biles’ decision to withdraw due to a mental focus issue has become a lightning rod of discussion. While there was a huge outpouring of support and empathy, some commenters criticized her for seeming to quit on her teammates and caving under pressure. One tweeted a fictional headline about Michael Jordan withdrawing from the NBA Finals due to a mental health issue, implying that a true champion would have stuck it out.

These comments all stem from a larger mentality that sociologists Robert Hughes and Jay Coakley dubbed the “sports ethic,” which says that elite athletes should dedicate their lives to their sport and perform despite pain, injury, and any other obstacle in their way. As a former NCAA gymnast, I wore my injuries as a badge of honor. I learned firsthand how a mistake on vault can have massive consequences, tearing all four cruciate ligaments in my knee my junior year on a vault gone awry. But Biles violated this “sports ethic” by withdrawing without a visible, debilitating injury, à la Kerri Strug of the 1996 Games.

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Just as athletes like Biles are expected to live up to the sports ethic, workers have similar expectations with hustle porn and grind culture, which holds that the best employees dedicate themselves completely to their organizations and do whatever it takes to get the job done. And both of these mentalities are problematic. 

Imagine you have a star professional at your company—an engineer who ships code ahead of schedule, a salesperson who lands massive deals every quarter, a marketer whose content consistently goes viral. Their innovations have changed the industry, and their success has carried the company for years. One day, in the middle of a critical project, they tell you they need to step away for a bit to care for their mental health.

How would you respond? Would you support their decision, despite how severely it impacts the project’s success? Or would you chastise them for being selfish and letting their team down? 

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So many managers and companies have talked a good game about wanting to care for the mental health of their employees. Well, this is where it counts. When it’s inconvenient. All the subsidized therapy, meditation apps, and wellness reimbursements in the world don’t matter if we can’t also respect an individual’s decision to care for their mental health at an inconvenient time to the business.

No one is denying that hard work and dedication are essential to achieving great results. But just as working long hours quickly becomes counterproductive, ignoring the mental health needs of workers will eventually backfire. Burnout-related health-care expenses cost employers at least $125 billion annually and 120,000 deaths. Investing in health, whether physical or mental, is about prioritizing the long-term outcomes of individuals over unsustainable short-term gains.

Biles clearly has a competitive spirit, having won the all-around in every national and international gymnastics meet she’s entered since 2013, including gold at the 2018 world championships with an unpassed kidney stone. She still has a chance to compete in event finals next week and is slated to perform across the U.S. in the fall. The fact that she was also empowered to step back for her own health and for the sake of her teammates—inspired by another Black (and Japanese) female athlete, Naomi Osaka—is wonderful. These athlete celebrities are no longer being controlled by their coaches or subjected solely to the judgement of their sport, the media, or the public.

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Biles has been sticking it out. Through the pandemic. Through a delayed, bizarro Olympics with no fans. Through being a survivor of sexual assault and simply being a Black woman in America. And yet the gymnast many consider to be the greatest of all time, still gets criticized for prioritizing her physical and mental well-being. While we’ve certainly made strides in recent years, it’s clear we still have a long way to go to making mental health a true priority for workers and athletes.

About the author

Jason Shen is a 3x startup founder, product leader, and TED speaker. His weekly newsletter Cultivating Resilience examines how we can build, adapt, and lead in the face of change

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