The Olympics provide an opportunity for the world to observe the greatest athletes of all time demonstrate their discipline, art, effort, and determination on a grand scale. The records continue to rise and in a world saturated with Marvel movies and special effects, it is easy to lose track of the inherent humanness involved in these competitions.
I read a meme that suggested each competition should include an average person as a competitor to provide a point of reference as a reality check for the accomplishments of these athletes in their fields. Coming from a historical reference point of the Greeks and their philosophy and mythology, the Olympics can deify these athletes for the rest of us, perceiving Olympians through the singular lens and expectation of victory at all costs. Simone Biles epitomizes these standards and expectations, referred to as “superhuman” and “the greatest gymnast of all time” by the media and spectators. “But Simone Biles is not a superhuman, she is incredibly gifted and dedicated, but she is also a human with the same limitations and requirements to balance her body, mind, emotions, and spiritual life like the rest of us”.
Jesus is divine, fully God, and also human, fully man, yet Jesus also demonstrated the necessity of balance across these complementary and inseparable elements of self in body, mind, emotions, and spirit. Jesus took time to recharge (Mark 6:31), acknowledging His need for a continued relationship with God the Father (Mark 1:35) and His disciples (Mark 4:10), demonstrating the importance of physical rest (Mark 4:38), and the importance of addressing our stress and anxiety with God and others through relationship (Matt. 6:32-33). Olympic athletes seem to persist in imbalance to some degree, choosing extreme discipline and focus in one area through intense and daily training to the exclusion of other aspects of life. Simone Biles started homeschooling at 15 so she could focus more time on training, spending three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon each day in the gym. At 24, Simone Biles is the “most decorated gymnast in World Championship history with 25 medals, 19 of which are gold” (USA Today, July 21, 2021). With this level of accomplishment and intensity, what does Simone Biles’ choice to withdraw from the competition to “work on her mindfulness” and “focus on her mental health” teach us about the role of mental health and its balance in our lives?
The Impact that Our Mental Health Has on Our Lives
Echoing how many of us operate in life, Simone Biles stated, “I’ll usually persevere and push through things” (USA Today, July 21, 2021). The common perspective for many is a singular focus on a task or situation to the exclusion or avoidance of other needs or issues. We push through pain, fear, uncertainty, ignoring the blinking lights and blaring alarms of our mental life to accomplish a task or pursue a goal. We are good at compartmentalizing, shutting off aspects of ourselves to avoid distraction or people, events, or emotions left unresolved from preventing us from pushing forward in our lives, shutting down cylinders of self until we are left misfiring on a single-cylinder, sidelined and burned out, inefficient and broken. We are not designed to live with siloed compartments of self, walling off and distancing our physical self from our emotional, mental, and spiritual selves.
Mental health involves all aspects of self along a continuum of healthy and sick. An ingrown toenail does not remain isolated to the sphere of your physical self, but invades all domains of life, impacting your mood and emotions and disrupting relationships as your fuse shortens during interactions. Jesus explains the holistic nature of self by noting how love for God requires all of us, encompassing our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). Mental health is more than the absence of psychopathologies, like anxiety or depression, but instead requires coordinated well-being across the core components of our emotions, mind, relationships, body, and spirit. Like a bucket with a hole, our health is only as full as our levels across each of these components. Like when we limp to reduce strain and to care for an ankle that is injured, the experience stress and trauma require additional care, attention, and support for our emotions, thinking, relationships, and spirit.
For Simone Biles, the Tokyo Olympics return her to the spotlight with all its inherent expectations, producing “the weight of the world on [her] shoulders.” While that is significant stress and strain for most people, Simone Biles is also highlighted in the media and in her interactions with others for her having survived the sexual abuse of Larry Nassar with this Olympics being the first since those revelations and trial went public. The delay to the Olympics due to COVID and the continued uncertainty up until the events, along with the additional hurdles and expectations for all of the athletes in the training and travel, adds to the weight of struggle and stress to Simone Biles’ emotions and focus. Simone Biles makes her gymnastic routines look easy (hence the value in an ordinary person as a reference point), but each move within her routine requires intense concentration and undivided focus to avoid serious injury from landing on her head or neck. If you have ever turned the radio down to better follow driving directions, you can understand the critical connection between our mind and our bodies, and the resultant influence of health and focus from your mind and emotions to the effective implementation of our bodies.
Mental Health Should Be Taken as Seriously as Physical Injury
Is it a valid reason to withdraw from the Olympics to work on mindfulness and focus on mental health? If you feel that it isn’t, would it be valid if she broke a bone? If a broken bone is a valid reason to withdraw, then a focus on mental health should also be valid as health is health, regardless of the contributing component. The health of our thinking and perspective informs our actions and influences our relationships. To be well, to be healthy, requires the balance of well-being across our mind, emotions, bodies, relationships, and spiritual life. Each of these components exists in relationship with one another, dependent on the health and functioning of the various parts for the whole to work as it is designed, just like the relationship Paul describes within the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:26). “Mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health because each is dependent on the other”. When our mental health is suffering, our physical health, our relational health, and our spiritual health also suffer. Simone Biles demonstrated her recognition of the need for balance across these domains by withdrawing to fortify her mental health, displaying her true strength in acknowledging her potential for weakness, and caring for the good of her team when not able to compete at full health.
Just as We Need Balance, Olympians Must Strike a Balance Between Self, Team, and Country
Life is full of expectations to be a certain way, to perform, to succeed. We place these standards or expectations on ourselves and receive them from others, often hoping or believing that our worth can be found through achievement. We have to be the best and continue to succeed because we represent our family, our school, our country to the world. Simone Biles fights against this perspective of identity as defined by our success and achievement. “Biles is so good at her gymnastic routines that the International Gymnastics Federation feels the need to curve or water down her scoring to reduce the margin of her superiority and prevent others from getting injured attempting her routines”. She is good at what she does, and yet, she explained the importance and need for balance in saying, “Put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to… it’s ok sometimes to sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself.” Wisdom is knowing yourself enough to know your limits and it is demonstrated when you can communicate those limits amidst the pressure to succeed and achieve.
Trauma fragments and disintegrates our identity and sense of self, pressing us to define our worth and value based on this experience. Success pushes us to define our worth by our capacity to win and achieve, maintaining our edge as the best, or at least better than others. For Simone Biles, the Tokyo Olympics represent the culmination of her life to this point in the undivided focus to her craft, but the Olympics also carry the reminders of her trauma, back at an Olympic venue, alongside her peers. She experiences the pressure to excel despite scoring restraints to her routines. Simone Biles must determine who she is and what defines her identity, balancing her roles and relationships as a gymnast, team member, and American. Her capacity to maintain this balance depends on her competence in balancing her components of self as well, maintaining well-being across her mind, emotions, body, relationships, and spiritual life. We are the same. Our choice for healthy balance or imbalance flows from our perception of our identity, value, and worth. Balance in mental health begins when we can change our question of “Who am I?” to “Whose am I?”, finding our identity in Christ and His love for us and not in the standards or expectations we or others place upon us.
“Simone Biles’ choice to prioritize her mental health during the Olympics teaches us two very important lessons. One, health is the coordinated balance of well-being across the core components of our emotions, mind, relationships, body, and spirit and cannot be compartmentalized”. Determining our balance and capacity within each area occurs through practice, growing as we struggle and learn in relationships with others. We don’t walk this life alone, seeking to put off our old self and put on our new self through independent effort (Eph. 4), but through the power of the Spirit and relationship with one another (1 Cor. 12). The second lesson from Simone Biles provides the means and connection for balance in the first, whether she realizes it or not, and it is finding our identity and worth in what God says about us and what Christ has achieved on our behalf, not in anything we have done (Titus 3:4-7). I am loved by God (1 John 3:16). Whatever I accomplish or achieve comes as a response to His gifts and is done for His glory (Eph. 2:8-10), allowing me to focus on loving God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor as myself (Mark 12:30-31).
Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.