This was never about “the twisties.”
It was never about “the mental just wasn’t there.”
It’s not about “white guys questioning her courage.”
And it’s not about “mental health.”
This is all about “positioning.”
While elite athletes sometimes deal with these performance issues, they don’t just walk away from the performance.
They persevere. They get a result. They don’t just ‘step back.”
Elite athletes represent a microscopic sliver of our population, and because of that, they aren’t easily understood.
It’s why other athletes understand why a Kerri Strug vaulted on a bad ankle to win the team gold in Atlanta in 1996. It’s why the general public gets angry at Bela Karolyi for “forcing” her to do it.
Imagine Tom Brady, the night before his 7th Super Bowl saying, “Yeah, I didn’t have it mentally today, so our backup is going to go in the big game tomorrow.”
Even at their worst, elite athletes are better than the rest.
Tom Brady is considered the GOAT of professional football. Simone Biles is regarded as the GOAT of USA gymnastics. Not only has she won medals, but she has also pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the sport as a whole. New moves. More twists. More flips. More difficulty.
But she is not the GOAT of gymnastics as a whole. That goes to Larisa Latynina of Russia, who has 18 Olympic medals over three Olympics. Simone Biles only has five medals from one Olympics.
So, the idea that it was “all too much for her” at this point in her career doesn’t make much sense.
In elite athletic circles, this isn’t something that is praised. And as I’ve reached out to the coaches and athletes I know across the globe, they are all saying the same thing, “It had nothing to do with her head and had everything to do with marketing.”
Let me explain…
We are witnessing an athlete who is bigger than the event she is competing in. For people born before 1980, they will understand that the Olympics used to birth an athlete. Mary Lou Retton. Dan Jansen. Nancy Kerrigan. Bonnie Blair. Michael Johnson. Carl Lewis. These athletes came to our attention because of the platform. They NEEDED the Olympics, and the Olympics needed them. It…was…a symbiotic relationship.
Times have changed.
Now athletes bring attention to the platform they compete on. The cost/benefit of competing no longer carries the return-on-investment that it once did. Especially for an American athlete, the soap opera hype around our star athletes fueled by NBC and other media outlets drives eyeballs. Eyeballs drive ratings. Ratings drive advertising. Advertising drives dollars. And so on. And so on.
For an athlete like Simone Biles, she is bigger than the Olympics in her home country. She doesn’t need it anymore. And what we just witnessed was an athlete, mid-Games, make an about-face and say, “You know what, guys…I’m done.”
But she couldn’t say that.
No…at some time between the 2016 games in Rio and the Olympics in Tokyo, someone in her circle probably said, “You know what, Simone, you don’t even have to compete in Tokyo if you don’t want to.”
And that is a true statement.
That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t want to compete or hates her sport. Far from it. But as all elite athletes and coaches understand, athletes will eventually lose their spark. That intangible bit of energy that makes an athlete…elite. When that fades, values change.
When that conversation happened, her prominence, reach, exposure, and influence had grown so large that she was now in a different orbit. And more power to her because it is a point EVERY athlete hopes they can reach. It doesn’t matter if you’re a gymnast or an archer, an NBA player or wrestler, when you can transcend your sport and reap those monetary rewards…it’s like a rocket finally expending that last bit of rocket fuel to reach the zero-gravity confines of space. You can just…float.
But floating doesn’t mean sitting on your couch to your end-of-days in your underwear eating Cheeto’s. No, you can use that time to take care of yourself, your family, and if you choose, to promote the causes you feel are important to you.
As athletes work their way up that food chain, they can make choices that they couldn’t make before. “I’ll do this…but that thing I used to do…yeah, I’m not going to do that anymore”—kind of like earning enough money to hire someone to clean your house or do your laundry. You can finally delegate the things in your life that you used to labor at.
Like the Olympics.
And that is what makes this whole thing so weird.
It’s why America ( and many other English-speaking nations) have fallen for this story hook, line, and sinker.
Now, I’m not being judgmental about what she has done. Not at all. I’m curious about the whole situation, unlike many people on social media crying foul, calling her racist names, un-American, selfish, etc.
To the people who called her selfish, well…they are right. This is, actually, a selfish move. But since this has been wrapped in the hotter-than-a-potato topic called “mental health,” people can’t even try to touch this with a ten-foot pole.
I’ll do my best because I, like most of my colleagues who work with elite athletes, are calling B.S. on this whole thing. Since I don’t work with teams or programs and primarily focus on working with individual athletes and their families, I can voice what every other coach I have talked to is thinking.
Let’s rewind to that meeting Simone Biles might have had with her team.
It might not have even been that formal. It could have been a passing comment from a parent or a loved one. Maybe her agent. Perhaps someone from the marketing team of one of her endorsement deals probably said, “Simone, people love you. You have a great future ahead of you. If you didn’t want ever to compete again, you could probably make that choice.”
But maybe it was a more formal meeting. A mastermind of sorts. These things happen around elite athletes who become celebrities.
Much like a politician attempting to earn votes, when marketing dollars of big brands are involved (LOTS of dollars), things don’t happen by accident.
No. Someone said, “Ok, here’s an idea…Simone, we want you to turn yourself into the face of the Olympics. Many companies would love to ride your ‘brand’ to the Olympics, and millions of dollars are at stake. Whaddaya say?”
At that point, an athlete decides if they want to make that commitment for four years. It’s a grind—a lot of work and sacrifice. But to athletes who still have that drive and determination, it’s a no-brainer. “Let’s do it!”
What I suspect happened somewhere between Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020(1) is that Simone Biles started to fatigue over this entire journey. Since Rio, she has done some fantastic things athletically, corporately, and not to mention becoming the still-active-athlete leader after the Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. Whether she wanted that role or not, as she has said, she was the last of the girls who had gone through that experience and was a “survivor.” I can’t imagine the mental, emotional, and physical burden that was for her.
Some athletes use negative motivation as motivation. “I’ll show them.” That is what is called an external motivator, and those of us in the sports performance world know that external motivators are not the same as internal or ‘intrinsic’ motivators. Extrinsic motivation wanes. Intrinsic motivation withstands challenges.
Couple all of those situations with a world-class marketing and public relations team.
My experience with marketing people is they are always concerned with the “Optics” of a situation.
With Simone, her agency representing her called Octagon is probably the best in the business. I can imagine the conversation as she got to Tokyo, “Ok, now that you’re here, it’s all gravy.”
But at some point, she didn’t feel right. Maybe it was something big like an injury or an illness. Or it could have been something that was just…off. Athletes talk about themselves as being on or off. I’m sure when that chink in the armor started to show her team may have said, “Listen, it would be better not to have anything than to have silver or bronze. You could pull out. Withdraw. Score poorly and say something didn’t feel right. Oh! Oh! I know! Say, ‘You’re protecting your mental health. The press will eat that up.”
And they have.
Some of you reading that will get entirely offended by the idea that an athlete would use their ‘mental health’ as an excuse, but I’m here to tell you that is exactly what is happening.
For me, a red flag was the press conferences and the interviews after she withdrew from the team competition. In the media, it played out perfectly. But what was said by the athletes to someone who understands athletes made it seem that people around her and her teammates were aware that this might happen. While it was a surprise to the general public, it didn’t feel like a surprise.
After qualifying, the US team didn’t look like they were going to beat the Russians anyway. What a perfect opportunity to step away. “Yes, we’ll use the ‘mental health’ angle. We’ll get some flack on social media, but it will blow over quickly.”
And that is precisely what happened.
The USA won silver in the team. The truth is they wouldn’t have won gold even with Simone Biles competing. The Russians are a far better team than the Americans. Why risk competing in that event when you’re not going to get gold anyway? It’s not a great look. By being a great teammate, you further your image as a good person, and that has legs after the games.
“We will wrap the story that you were worried about your mental health. The press will eat that up. The women’s all-around is in a couple of days. It all blows over.”
The transition seemed all too easy. Like people knew it was coming.
“The mental wasn’t there,” she said in a press conference. To be honest, I’ve never heard an elite athlete use those words before, “the mental.” Even that seemed scripted to me.
A few days later, Suni Lee takes most of the headlines after winning Gold in the women’s all-around. I say ‘most’ because the media was more interested in knowing what Simone told her before the final helped her win. Like it wouldn’t have happened without Simone stepping aside and helping her. Sheesh.
The truth here is that it has worked perfectly. The optics are perfect.
“Mental Health” Is Not About Quitting
What elite athletes and coaches will say behind closed doors is that mental health is not about quitting. The games still go on. After Simone Biles dropped out, they didn’t NOT award a gold medal. (My apologies for the double negative).
No, someone else stepped up, dealt with THEIR pressures, and competed. The ‘mental health’ wrapping paper that was put over the Simone Biles story is wrong. It is incorrect. It is NOT what this was about, and it is NOT the message that elite athletes genuinely believe in. And it’s not the message any elite coach would want an aspiring athlete to take away.
There is a saying, “You will regret the things that you don’t do more than the things you do.
I haven’t met a single athlete, who is still invested in their sport, who wouldn’t risk injury in an attempt for a gold medal. If they are the Olympic favorite, they would be disappointed but still happy with the medal. That’s why this whole Simone Biles story doesn’t add up for me and many of my other elite athletes and coaches. The reality is that Simone Biles is done with the Olympics. She was done before she got here. She is ready to move on, and this scripted exit is working perfectly.
The message that the American audience is gobbling up, that protecting your mental health is more important than competing, is not what elite sport is all about. It soothes an audience, many of whom deal with mental health issues, but it is not the same. It is never the same. The definition of mental health is as fluid as water.
Your definition of depression and anxiety, or any other ailment, is not the same as someone else’s. We can’t paint it with the same brush.
And this was never about the general public somehow understanding what it’s like to fling yourself off the balance beam or any other apparatus either.
But Other Great Athletes Offered Their Support
Not to say that their support wasn’t sincere because I’m sure it was. But it’s not accurate.
For many of those athletes, they understand that this whole thing is a game, and she’s taken care of. It’s all good.
But…and here’s the controversial angle…many of those athletes with big social media accounts also have social media teams willing to jump on hashtags at a moment’s notice. “Hey, ‘Simone Biles’ is trending! What can we say on this?’ Harsh, but possible.
For most athletes, saying what they actually feel would come across as insensitive, and they don’t want to venture into this conversation of just how absurd this all seems.
Novak Djokovic is arguably the GOAT of tennis. (Not just a Serbian GOAT) took the approach I am taking here. Dealing with pressure is a privilege. You earn the right to experience it, and once you are there, you learn to work through it.
Stepping away is not the answer, and it indeed shouldn’t be lauded. Simone Biles is not a hero for what she did here. She may be a hero for getting to this point, but when the light was about to shine…she stepped away. That is the reality. “Why,” she stepped away is what I’m curious about.
But Even Her Sponsors Offered Her Their Support!
Of course, they would. Can you imagine, in today’s age of mental health awareness, if Athleta (A division of Gap Inc.) came out and said, “Yeah, we don’t like quitters, so we’re going to drop Simone?”
Can you imagine the backlash?
Listen, we want to support people’s mental health, but right now, the conversation is toxic. It’s a hot-button topic, and whether you like it or not, people will take advantage of the hiding spots that it creates.
Elite athletes and coaches understand that dealing with pressure is what this is all about. If there were no pressure, there would be no elite athletics.
It is no different than a CEO or a surgeon. Can you imagine if your surgeon, before your life-saving surgery, said…”I can’t deal with all this pressure!” And walked out? You’d be there on the gurney going, “But, Doc. Wait! You got this! You can do this! Don’t quit!”
Withstanding Challenge and Taking Advantage of Opportunity
When you break sport down to its essence, an athlete only has two jobs. The first job is to withstand challenges. The second job is to take advantage of opportunities. Those challenges and opportunities happen both off and on the field of play.
For Simone Biles, what it looks like is that she could not withstand the challenge around her sport. But in reality, she is taking advantage of opportunities outside of her sport.
As I listen to the US athletes talk about pressure, they fall into a straightforward trap that the general public perpetuates: that pressure can be heaped upon you. That’s not true. You allow pressure to build on yourself.
Even the youngest of athletes SHOULD be taught that the expectations you put on yourself or allow others to put on you are one of the biggest traps that lead to poor performance. It’s as simple as realizing there are no big game days. You practice like you play, and you play like you practice. It is what ‘professionalism’ is all about.
That is why it is also an easy smoke-screen to hide behind when your performance goes bad.
Simone Biles team knows this.
Rory McIlroy, one of the best golfers globally and competing for Ireland, was quoted as saying he supports Simone Biles and her priority about her mental health. And people think that’s just great and stop reading there.
Yet Rory McIlroy is the same athlete who bombed out famously at the British Open when it was played in Northern Ireland. He said that the pressure got to him, yet that same Open was won by another Northern Irishman who managed to handle the same pressure, Shane Lowry.
In the same event, you had two athletes who managed the pressure differently. Neither one of them walked off the course like Simone Biles just did.
Rory McIlroy succumbed to the challenge. Shane Lowry took advantage of the opportunity when Rory McIlroy bombed out.
And as you hear Rory McIlroy talk about his game, he openly talks about how he learned to manage the pressure. That is what should be praised. The effort for the solution, not walking away.
If you think you have pressure on you, you will.
For the athletes who competed in this Olympics, they were able to
If The Gold Medal Were Important, They Wouldn’t Be Talking
If Simone and her team were serious about winning the gold, they wouldn’t be talking. Or at least, they wouldn’t be talking about what is going wrong. Their focus, and what they would be telling the media, would go something like this:
Her representative would address the media and say, “Right now, Simone is resting and hydrating and doing everything she can to allow her body to get back to normal. That includes lots of sleep. Lots of water. No screens. No stimulation. We have nothing more to say at this time other than our focus is on bringing home gold for the United States.”
That’s what a team focused on a gold medal would say.
Instead, Simone is sharing EVERYTHING. We are getting a play-by-play of how horrible it is and usual timelines for how long it takes to recover. Hardly a positive mental approach to recovery. You just have to read one basic sport psychology book to know how self-sabotaging her approach is.
If it’s my athlete, we are focused on one thing, recovery. And we are doing EVERYTHING to make that happen in the shortest time possible. We are talking about nothing other than that. Period.
Instagram posts are being put up and taken down, adding to the mystery. This is not what an athlete, who is focused on winning gold, would be doing.
Are The Twisties Even a Thing?
Yes. But I wouldn’t doubt it if she has brought the real twisties on at this point.
As elite athletes understand, you get more of what you focus on. If you don’t want something to happen, you don’t focus on what you don’t want; you focus on what you do want.
For example, when a race car driver starts to go into a spin, they don’t focus on the wall they are about to hit. They focus on the road and where they want to go.
An elite gymnast is focusing on her landing, not avoiding flying off into the stands.
The brain can not process a negative. When being chased by a lion, or an attacker, those who escape are the ones who focus on a successful outcome, not being eaten.
This is where dealing with the media can be difficult. It’s why Naomi Osaka withdrew from Paris earlier this year in tennis. Inquiring minds want to know? “How are you coping? What are the twisties? Explain it to us in all of your gory detail if you could, please?”
As coaches, we know that when an athlete sits and marinates in the negative, they get more of it. That is why an elite coach would be protecting their athlete at this time to keep them away from those negative reminders, like the media.
For an athlete to break out of something like this, they need rest and relaxation. They need avoidance of stimulation. They need a reset of their nervous system.
That comes with distraction from the situation, not a heaping dose of reminders every day. Not doing a press conference and then rehashing it over social media.
If they were serious about a gold medal, they would have shut her down. (A coaching term akin to doing a restart on your computer.)
But instead, this entire story is working perfectly.
Remember Suni Lee? You know, the girl who won the gold in the Women’s all-around? No? It’s only been a day after that event has happened as I write this.
Who is trending on the front page of CNN and Twitter? It’s not Suni Lee. It’s Simone Biles.
This is all working perfectly.
Why Would An Athlete Deliberately Give Up Gold?
People can’t possibly understand how you could give up a gold medal when they can’t even comprehend what it takes to win one. Those same people, basically 99% of the world, can’t possibly understand that someone is bigger than the Olympics.
Simone has bigger fish to fry. What I know of Simone through athletes and coaches who have been near, around, or worked with her all say that she’s a great kid. I can imagine her ‘passing the torch to her teammates in a very genuine way. Again, I’m not judging here. This is a fantastic moment in athletic history we are witnessing.
The Olympics, for many athletes, is an end goal. It is a result to be attained.
For other athletes, even those at the same Olympics, the Olympic platform is a tool. A springboard. A stepping stone.
Simone Biles is a brand. She is something every athlete wishes they could be because they assume the financial freedom that comes with that would be liberating.
Remember, most Olympians will go back to a ‘normal’ existence after the Olympics. Many struggle to put food on their own table. It is difficult for people to comprehend that even on the same team, you have someone with lots of marketing opportunities in front of them and another athlete who is doing everything they can think of to afford to be there.
Should USA Gymnastics Have Done More?
Listen, I fully believe that USA Gymnastics could have done more to protect athletes from what they have gone through in the last ten years. I don’t think ANY program can fully protect athletes from those tragic experiences USA Gymnastics has gone through.
We can’t fully protect athletes on the field of play. We can’t fully protect athletes off the field of space, either.
And I’ll share the advice I once learned from a locksmith, “If someone wants to break into your house, no matter what you have on the house for locks, they’re going to get in.”
But I digress. This isn’t about what USA Gymnastics has gone through. This is about what Simone Biles is doing right now.
So, should USA Gymnastics have done more? Could they have done more?
In a situation like this, USA Gymnastics has no part in this conversation. Their hands are tied.
Ally Raisman did a great job of continuing the USA-Gymnastics-As-Punching-Bag conversation when she piled on, saying that this whole situation just goes to show how bad USA Gymnastics is.
As I said, I believe USA Gymnastics has some growing up to do. But in this situation, there is nothing they can do.
In my experience as a coach, even when governing bodies go out of their way to provide resources to their athletes, sometimes athletes won’t take them. They won’t use them.
As they say in marketing, “You can’t sell prevention; you can only sell a cure.”
We can talk about eating well all day, but until someone has a health issue, they still are going to pull into the drive-through.
USA Gymnastics, the Olympics, has acted as a platform for Simone, and we wish her all the best.
What Can Future Athletes And Their Families Learn From This
Ah, yes. If you have read this far…gotten to this point…I congratulate you. This is where other coaches deal with aspiring athletes, and I want to share our two cents. Ok, maybe ten cents.
Because of the way this is being played out in the media; it is sending a horrible message to future athletes, which is most bothersome.
The message being sent right now is that when ‘the mental’ isn’t there, it’s ok to just…quit.
“But wait!” you say. “What about the safety issue. She could get hurt!!”
That is true. I have seen firsthand the risks athletes take and the terrible consequences that result. I was at the scene when Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia flew out of the luge track and hit a metal pole in Vancouver in 2010. His aorta ripped from his heart as he bled out next to the track chasing his Olympic dream.
As elite athletes and coaches, we understand those risks. We push for them. It is why we even have elite sport. Simone Biles is well-versed in pushing those limits and has
If you have transcended your sport and are an international media ‘brand’, your values may change how you value a gold medal. That is what we see here.
To an up-and-coming athlete who has not yet reached that point, there is much learning to be done here.
This is primarily a US conversation. The rest of the athletic world is laughing. This has nothing to do with mental health, distracting the true message around mental health. And I will argue that all of the conversations around the “twisties” is a smoke-screen. There…I said it.
What young athletes need to understand is that even when you feel bad, you must look for solutions on your path to the goal. You don’t just quit on the goal. Yes, there are times when your values and your performance will collide. You’ll do this…but not…that.
And that’s…ok as long as you are willing to live with the consequences of your decision.
And that is where every spectator and their brother will have an opinion. When is it all “too much?” “This is the win-at-all-costs mentality that needs to end!”
Humans are goal-seeking organisms. We are also prone to be disagreeable and love competition.
When you do two flips, I’m going to do two and a half. When I do two and a half, you’re going to try for three. Depending on our resources (time, energy, money), we’ll keep going. If you decide that it’s not worth your resources anymore and you quit, that doesn’t mean that those still going for it are wrong or that it’s “all too much.” Too much for you in that moment, yes. Too much for everyone else? No.
Aspiring athletes who look up to Simone Biles now think that protecting your mental health is about stopping the thing you love doing, and that’s a horrible message.
Elite coaches and athletes all talk about a lack of discipline and a lack of stick-to-it-’ve-ness with today’s generation of athletes. This is primarily a US problem spreading into other English speaking countries (i.e., Canada, UK, Australia)
While the media praises “out of this world” performances, they are also quick to jump on ANY story that affects “mental health.” Get close to something that may affect your ‘mental health,’ and you should stop right there. What they don’t talk about is the weight of regret an athlete has when they look back and realize, “I could have done that.”
This gives a very mixed message for athletes who want an Olympic dream but then who isn’t prepared to put in the work necessary to achieve it.
What I love about international sports is that these cultural differences towards work and stick-to-it-ive-ness are laid bare. If you quit, for whatever reason, there will be someone there to take your place. Sport doesn’t care about your mental health. It doesn’t care about your past. It doesn’t care about your future.
Sport gives us opportunities to discover who we are at the moment.
The moments will change. Will you be able to adapt?
In The End
In the end, this is a multi-faceted sports story that is cloaked in a marketing strategy. Not one coach I have talked to disagrees with that.
Unfortunately, it is driven to appeal to the general public, but within that public are aspiring athletes who are receiving the wrong message.
Protecting your ‘mental health’ is not about quitting. It is about taking steps to withstand the environment you are venturing into.
If Simone does have the “twisties,” the timing is unfortunate. But the way it is being handled in the press is far from textbook. As I mentioned above, if they were genuinely going for gold, it wouldn’t be handled like this.
For the athletes of the future, this poses a tremendous opportunity. As ANY athlete will understand, when an athlete ahead of you in the rankings drops out, there is a moment of empathy for the athlete who withdrew, followed by a little bit of glee that there is one less athlete to compete with.
A door is open.
When Naomi Osaka withdrew from Wimbledon, I spoke with three athletes coaches inside the top ten on the women’s side. ALL of them were happy she wasn’t there.
Only time will tell if the decision was the right one. Only the athlete will know if the decision was correct. Hindsight is always 20/20.
But as the saying goes, “On the scale of life, the weight of discipline weighs ounces, the weight of regret weighs tons.”