When Simone Biles Took a Mental Health Day

We wonder what to do with our own “twisties” too.

After United States Olympic Gymnast, Simone Biles decided to take a “mental health day”,  she noted it on Instagram:

“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world upon my shoulders at times… “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but sometimes it’s hard, hahaha! The Olympics is no joke. . .”

“We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back. I didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt. I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped.”

Biles decided Wednesday (July 28, 2021) not to compete in the individual all-around gymnastics competition either. Her team supported her two earth-shattering decisions. She later reported that she had “a little bit of the twisties.”

The term refers to a sense of disconnection between the body and the mind that some gymnasts experience.  The “twisties” means gymnasts become disoriented while twisting in the air. Many former gymnasts empathized with Biles explaining that mental blocks like the “twisties” commonly occur while under pressure. This can be extremely dangerous to even basic gymnasts, let alone gymnasts of Biles’ caliber. She has said she was a lot more fearless at age 19, but less so now. With each push to do more, be more, show more, comes the risk of serious injury. And that weighed heavily on her.

When You Carry the Weight of the World

Not everyone had positivity and praise related to Biles’ decision, however.  English broadcaster and television personality, Piers Morgan, tweeted: “Are ‘mental health issues’ now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport? What a joke. Just admit you did badly, made mistakes, and will strive to do better next time. Kids need strong role models not this nonsense.”  Conservative media voices like Charlie Kirk, Matt Walsh, and Jenna Ellis all characterized Biles as a quitter, equating her focus on “mental health” with a softness or lack of emotional fortitude. They went so far as to accuse her of failing her team–and even her country.

It’s important to recognize the proverbial elephant in the room and that is the fact that Simone Biles has had to deal with outright bigotry in her rise to the top spot of GOAT-ness. Yet, no matter how hard she worked to get there, the strains of racist innuendo– lack of discipline, hard work, and mental strength– are alive in the rhetoric today, and make Biles’ bowing out even more noteworthy. Also, in the past she has acknowledged that trying to break through in gymnastics as a young black girl, meant carrying a heavy load.  Competing in a sport historically dominated by white and Asian athletes “was a struggle growing up because you don’t see many of your kind.”  That level of success has brought with it a weighty responsibility. It is also a powerful platform upon which Biles has become an inspiration to black children. Biles noted that she feels like “. . . I have instilled confidence in little African Americans all over the world. I feel like if I can do it, then you can do it.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic spurred on another stress. Olympians this year meet their Olympic-sized stresses without the benefit of family.  With few spectators in the stands, and families remaining at home,  this was definitely something that negatively affected Simone’s mental health resiliency as well.

Multi-faceted Issue

So, who decides when you’ve had enough? When to push through, or tap out? What sets this generation apart is a keen awareness of the internal dialogue, and the self-determination to make the call.

I am a community mental health counselor, with almost thirty years of experience. And, as someone who was a serious athlete in school, with mental health issues of my own, I energetically applaud Biles’ decision. Yet this issue isn’t so cut and dry. Not a day or week goes by that I’m not addressing this issue with my young clients. The issue of mental health, resiliency, and emotional fragility is a multi-faceted and complex one.

Biles’ mindfulness of her own limitations and how they affected her mental health informed her brave decision.  Her justification for discontinuing was related to a state of mind that could have caused her to become seriously injured. So, in my estimation, her mental health day was warranted.

This illustrates the fact that when taking into account the request for a mental health day, probing and specific “contextual” questions must be asked of ourselves and the young people around us. For instance, if you have a teenager who wants a mental health day, and in your grilling them, you find that the only reason why they want to take a day off is because there’s a test, quiz, or assignment due that they haven’t studied for, then no deal! The answers there involve preparation and better self-management. If, however, something serious has been happening in their life or has suddenly happened, like a death in the family or other trauma, then such a day off is a reasonable request.

How Faith Can Inform Our Actions

I agree that our teenagers need to be more resilient, and have generally been perceived as emotionally fragile, illogical, impulsive, and immature. The reality is that teenagers aren’t children and they’re not adults, which means that as the adults in their lives, we need to provide a comprehensive solution that provides a balance of both support and freedom.

Many Christians have historically held “you don’t need counseling . . . what you need is more Jesus—more faith in Him!” But the fact is that we all live in a broken and stressful world, and since the start of this pandemic, things have only become more chaotic.

People have said to me: “If every time people felt stressed, overwhelmed, and out of control, they decided to take a mental health day, great things would never happen!”

Come Aside

These same people refer to many instances in the New Testament Gospels where Jesus spent all day preaching and healing others. However, they fail to cite specific instances in those same Gospels that evidence Jesus waking up early in the morning, spending hours with God in prayer—or in some instances, spending all night in prayer (Mark 1:35 and Luke 6:12). Rather than pushing Himself through hard work, He prostrated Himself long, seeking solace, strength, and clarity. What would Jesus do in  a stressful situation? Would He take time to relax and create margin in His life? The answer is a resounding yes!

On one particularly crazy-busy day, Jesus, feeling the overwhelming stress and pressure of training and sending out His disciples, decided to take His disciples on an impromptu retreat of sorts:

“The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, ‘Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.’ He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone”  (Mark 6:30-32, NLT).

“Thank God for the Sabb-AH-ath!”

I would argue that Jesus knew that things would get so crazy in our world, that within the actual Ten Commandments, He inscribed a proverbial mental health day, of sorts. It’s the Sabbath. The only commandment that begins with the word “remember”—shows us that God knew. He knew that humanity, mired in the stress of this world, would have a sort of amnesia. God, with His own finger, wrote to us all:

“Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy” (Exodus 20:8-11, NLT).

God created the Sabbath as both a memorial of His creative power.  Equally as important, it reminds us that each of us use this sacred time to not just remember, but to revive, recreate, and restore.

How Can We Help Teens to Deal?

So knowing what we know about the importance of taking regular time for our mental health, how do we know when to make our teens stick to their schedules, commitments, and when do we just allow them to relax and give them a pass? How do we know where the line is for our kids? How do we push? When do we back off?

Well, it all begins and ends with making sure to create and maintain a daily and vibrant, real relationship with God ourselves. We remember our own need for mental health.  And then, we ask the thoughtful questions, teaching them to be mindful (in a healthy way) of their own internal life of thoughts and feelings. Finally, respecting their perspectives on their own lives and the things that stress them out, we believe what they have to say and celebrate their choice to put their own mental health first.

Then and only then can we say that we haven’t wasted the impact of Simone Biles’ mental health day felt around the world.

 

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