I love the Olympics and was particularly looking forward to this year’s games. I was especially looking forward to the women’s gymnastics competition in large part because I am in awe of Simone Biles. I think that there is a good argument to be made that she is the best athlete on the planet, in any sport, male or female.
Like many, I woke up to the news yesterday that Biles had pulled out of the team competition. Initial reports said she had injured herself when she landed awkwardly after a vault. As the day unfolded, she made clear that she decided not to compete because she wanted to put her mental health first. The stress and pressure that she (and most of the rest of the world) had placed on her 4’ 8” frame had finally taken its toll. She was making uncharacteristic mistakes, and she didn’t want to seriously injure herself or negatively impact her team’s chances of winning a medal.
While so many have applauded her courage, others have gone on attack. Two radio show hosts recently questioned why support for Biles’ decision to withdraw is to be considered brave. Mental health may promote skepticism because it’s invisible. We can’t see the struggle like we can see a broken bone or the pain of a pulled muscle. Because it’s invisible, we feel entitled to judge it, to say nothing of the fact that we expect Olympic caliber athletes to simply suck it up and drive on. I work with many professionals who are under a great deal of pressure to be perfect – and whether this pressure is real or perceived, it eventually takes its toll.
When you’re feeling the pressure (or are concerned about someone else), here are some ideas to help:
Process your emotions. Biles has been quoted in interviews saying that she often bottles up her emotions (even saying on Dancing with the Stars that “smiling doesn’t win you medals”). She also said that she hates crying. I can so relate to that because I, too, hate to cry. I have long felt that for me, crying is a sign of weakness, and it’s taken a lot of therapy and understanding to get to the root cause of this belief. The anxiety I sometimes feel gets amplified when I don’t regularly process my emotions.
Ask people how they are doing. “How are you doing?” are four of the most powerful words you can speak. It might not be obvious that someone is struggling, even someone who you know well. Authentically caring about another person and inviting a conversation is not nosey and can be a welcome relief to a person who is under intense pressure.
Replace judgment with humble curiosity. Mental health can be confusing and misunderstood to people who have not experienced it or who just don’t know much about it. Rather than assume you know what someone else is experiencing, use these sentence starters to invite a deeper conversation (and empathy):
- I’m curious about…
- Tell me more/say more about that…
- Help me understand…
- Walk me through that…
- I’m wondering…
Play a mental game. Perfectionists tend to overthink – everything. I tend to overthink lying in bed at night trying to fall asleep. One of my favorite strategies to break the mental looping is to play a mental game that a drill sergeant taught me. He called it the alphabet game. Start with the letter A and create a sentence where every word starts with the letter A: “All apples are awesome.” Then go to letter B: “Big bananas buy boats.” Then proceed through the alphabet. I usually find that by letter H, I, or J, my brain has become so focused on creating silly sentences that the mental looping has stopped, and I can more easily fall asleep.
Recognize your icebergs/rules. When I work with individuals and teams, there is consistently one thing I discover that impedes their ability to manage stress and drives perfection – icebergs. I first learned about the concept of icebergs at the University of Pennsylvania during my training to teach resilience strategies to soldiers in the US Army. Icebergs are your core values and beliefs about the way you think the world should operate.
Take a moment to visualize an iceberg – there is a small piece that is visible above the water line, but the biggest part remains hidden under the water. Your core values and beliefs often operate outside of your conscious awareness (“hidden under the water”) as you go about your day, but they can be triggered in certain circumstances. I call icebergs your rules.
Here are some examples of iceberg beliefs or rules:
- “I need to always be in charge or things will go wrong”
- “I must have all the answers”
- “If I can’t do something perfectly, then I shouldn’t do it at all”
- “If you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself”
- “Failure is a sign of weakness”
- “Strong people don’t ask for help”
It’s important for you to surface your rules so you can evaluate them. Once you surface the belief, you can evaluate it by asking these questions:
- Is this rule helping or harming? Is it getting me closer to, or further away from the goals I want to achieve? Is it too inflexible?
- How did the rule develop? Is it a core family value? Did your choice of career influence the rule? Is it linked to a societal expectation?
- What alternative rule might be more helpful?
Resilience isn’t about toughness – at all. It’s not about persevering at all costs. It’s about recharging and prioritizing your mental well-being. It’s about persevering with a purpose and recognizing when you need to pivot or take a step back. I think the bigger question that organizations (athletic and otherwise) need to ask is why is it acceptable for people to operate in an environment where they feel pushed to their breaking point and beyond? This morning Biles announced that she had also withdrawn from the individual all-around competition. Her actions send a powerful message – your mental health and well-being come first, even on the world’s biggest stage.