One of the biggest stories from the 2020 Olympic Games is Simone Biles—winner of 30 combined Olympic and world championship medals, widely regarded as the best gymnast of all time—withdrawing from the team and all around competitions. Biles explained that her head was not in the right place to perform her trademark movements in which one wrong step or error in timing could result in catastrophic physical injury. It was reported that Biles was struggling with immense pressure and stress from being in the spotlight. Prior to withdrawing, she said while she’d been “fighting all those demons,” the load was becoming too much. “At the end of the day, I just have to do what was right for me,” she told the press. “It just sucks that it happened at the Olympic Games.”
Biles’s decision to drop out of the Olympics came just weeks after another superstar, tennis player Naomi Osaka, decided to exit the Wimbledon tennis tournament, also citing mental health issues. It started with Osaka not wanting to participate in press conferences because they often trigger her anxiety, and ended with her forfeiting the tournament.
When Osaka dropped out of Wimbledon, some pundits said that press conferences and other media appearances are part of the job, and she should toughen up and do them. Yet the people saying this are rarely in the arena. They are usually on their couch. And the messaging that these commenters send out into the world can be damaging for professionals and fans alike.
Professional athletes aren’t the only ones to experience the crushing weight of expectations. It’s practically baked into Western culture. In my new book, I call this “heroic individualism:” an ongoing game of one-upmanship against one’s self and others, where external measurement is the main arbiter of success. In this model, we are never enough. We never have enough, we’re constantly pushing for the next thing, always trying to justify our value, and constantly living in the pressure cooker. In the outdoor world, this could be a climber getting caught in a life-threatening storm because they ignored the weather radar, or a runner cutting their career short by trying to push through a chronic injury, or a person simply burning out on something they once loved and planned to do for the rest of their lives. It is not surprising that anxiety, depression, and burnout are at all-time highs. What is surprising is that we wonder why.
When star athletes are public about their struggles with mental health, it is unambiguously a good thing. It reduces stigma and it shows that we are all human, even those of us who are considered superhuman. But these stories also highlight two concerning issues for stars and everyday people alike.
Cultural Change Is Necessary
The first issue is that idolizing professional athletes is bad for everyone. Whether it’s reading a front-page athlete profile or simply enjoying the dopamine rush from getting likes and re-Tweets on social media, our obsession with celebrity, fame, and relevance is making us sick. We are in desperate need of cultural change that promotes groundedness. Pros need space to be grounded. So do we.
Groundedness is about ditching an omnipresent restlessness to begin living in alignment with your innermost values, pursuing your true interests, and expressing your authentic self in the here and now. You are where you are, and you hold true strength and power from that position. Your success, and the way in which you pursue it, becomes more enduring and robust.
While Biles’ decision appears to be grounded in her present situation, the cultural current pushing back on her is not. Years of research and reporting shows that a society that supports a more grounded kind of success is a much healthier and happier one.
Avoidance—Without Nuance—Is Not Good for Everyone
Withdrawing was undoubtedly the right choice for Biles. But it’s not always the right choice for all of us, all the time. The stories highlighted above are rare athletes on a global stage putting their minds and bodies at incredible risk. In everyday life, if you’re not on the way to an acute crisis, staying home often makes the sadness or anxiety worse. This is known as avoidance. The more you let negative feelings dictate your actions, the deeper and more intense those feelings can grow.
The gold standard treatments for depression and anxiety disorders are acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Integral to both of these therapies is not avoiding things because you are sad or anxious. There are, of course, extremes. If you are feeling 8 out of 10 sadness or angst, then maybe taking those feelings with you is not a good idea. But if your angst or sadness is a 6 out of 10, then learning to take them along with you is generally the best path forward. Otherwise, those emotions just become more entrenched.
You can feel all sorts of things and still act in alignment with your core values. Oftentimes, you don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to feel good. Mental health is not about white-knuckling your way through. But it is about getting the support you need and showing up for life, even when you don’t want to.
Ultimately, if we took our cues from Biles and decided to withdraw every time we felt pressure or stress, that would just be another example of rote idolization of athletes.
When the story becomes about a single person’s struggle—and not the underlying culture from which it rises—it can be problematic. We risk missing the forest for an individual tree. And while avoidance was the right choice for Biles, it may not be the right choice for you. This tightrope demands more nuance than most hot takes can deliver.
Perhaps the broader conversation on mental health has been so tilted toward grit, repression, and always gutting it out and we need a big correction in the other direction. Unfortunately, on this issue there tends to be two camps: that of self-love and that of toughness. The truth is that all evidence-based models for therapy teach both of these skills and the best path for most people will be somewhere in the middle.
“I think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now… we have to protect our minds and bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” says Biles.
I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully her story doesn’t just draw attention to mental health, but also prompts serious discussion on solutions—both culturally and individually.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul and Peak Performance and co-founder of The Growth Equation.