At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t know what it’s like to be Simone Biles. I am not in her body or her mind.
What I can speak to is the truth of my own experience.
I know what it’s like to experience a disconnection between my mind and body in my physical pursuits — both in flying trapeze and trampoline, as well as in more simple everyday movement patterns. Over the past few years I’ve learned a lot about how chronic stress can cause the body to shut down, leading to dysfunctional movement patterns and injury.
I have also experienced this type of disconnect in the context of my work.
The phrase “paralyzed with fear” isn’t metaphorical. I have at times, including recently, experienced literal paralysis from anxiety. Sometimes I can’t even speak when it happens.
Some people criticized Biles for her decision to withdraw from the team competition. They called her a quitter. They accused her of being selfish, abandoning her team, and letting down her country. They called her weak for not “pushing through” her “mental blocks” on the world’s biggest stage.
This criticism has nothing to do with Simone Biles. Among other things, it is a reflection of how our culture views physical health versus mental health.
Here’s the thing: they are not different.
Just because Biles didn’t break a bone or tear a tendon doesn’t mean she wasn’t injured. Not all injuries are visible.
For what she does, not having your head fully in the game isn’t just a minor inconvenience — it poses a risk of serious physical injury.
That said, the conversation that Biles ignited this past week extends beyond gymnastics — and beyond the sports world.
The Culture of Pushing Through
We live in a culture that praises people who “push through” at all costs. We learn that we should put “mind over matter.”
“Get over” whatever is weighing on you. Don’t reveal your fears or struggles. Compartmentalize your emotions.
We learn that if we can’t, then we are weak.
If we can’t, then we are a failure.
If we can’t, then something is wrong with us. It’s enough.
If you’ve ever felt this way, I want you to know this:
You are not broken.
What’s broken is a system that treats the mind and body as separate entities.
What’s broken is the narrative that strength lies in our ability to compartmentalize.
What’s broken is a culture that teaches us to ignore the wisdom of our own bodies and to suppress our emotions.
What’s broken is the societal norm that preaches the value of a “strong mindset” but doesn’t teach skills to cultivate resilience.
Health is health.
Performance is Holistic
Performance in any arena — in the gym, on the court, in the field or in the office — is holistic. It requires integration of mind, body, emotions and spirit.
Our biggest mistake is the belief that we can separate one piece of this puzzle from the rest of it.
At some point, if the load on the system gets too heavy, the system shuts down. That’s a feature, not a bug. It’s a safety mechanism built into the system of the human body.
To avoid this shut-down, we need to unload the weights we are carrying.
Many of us don’t reach out for help when we need it because we fear the type of criticism that Simone Biles faced last week. Or we fear that others won’t understand.
Instead of asking for support, we keep our problems to ourselves. We suppress our emotions, put on a brave face and carry on.
Here’s what I’ve learned (the hard way) from my own journey:
Suppressing emotions isn’t a sound strategy for sustainable high performance.
We need people to talk to. Communities are great, but we also need 1:1 support.
We need to feel safe to remove our masks and express ourselves without fear of repercussions.
As Michael Phelps said,
We need someone who we can trust. Somebody who can let us be ourselves and listen. Somebody who can allow us to become vulnerable. Somebody who is not going to try and fix us.
No matter what we do, having a place where we can feel safe to share what’s real is not a luxury. It’s essential.
We cannot perform at our best without it.
the load you carry
doesn’t need to weigh you down
reach out for support