Even before the Tokyo Olympics began, Simone Biles had already shown the world that she was a truly remarkable individual. Her strength and courage are unquestionable and evident in the way she has handled enormous pressure, injuries, and unspeakable abuse at the hands of her athletic trainer. She always rose above and handled each situation with grace and maturity beyond her years.
Her decisions during the Olympic Games this week further solidify that she is truly in a league of her own.
We all have tough days. Days when we know we’re not at our best and have to identify the best way to move forward. For Biles, though, that decision is not as simple as “powering through” in spite of the situation. In a sport like gymnastics, powering through a challenging event could lead to a career-ending injury, paralysis, or even death. Additionally, as the leader of her team, she was under enormous pressure as the senior member and team star. With that enormous weight on her shoulders, she made the courageous decision to step away from the competition to prioritize her mental and physical health.
I would argue that her decision to step away from the greatest stage in gymnastics was far more courageous than if she’d chosen to continue the competition. In doing so, she gave herself and every other athlete who respects her the permission to prioritize their needs. We have a long way to go in normalizing mental health as a society. Even in the corporate world, we often make up excuses for sick days instead of being bold and defining it as a mental health day. Imagine your request for a mental health day being followed by a press conference and wall-to-wall news coverage. The fact that she felt comfortable sharing her decision in such an open, honest way gave us all a new reason to admire what a truly remarkable and courageous woman she is.
Not only did Biles open a worldwide conversation about mental health, but she also showed us what true leadership looks like. She sacrificed her own headline so that other team members could shine. She knew that it could affect her team members’ concentration and confidence if she continued to struggle. Stepping away when she did allowed the team to regroup and deliver a steady performance without distractions.
It is important to note that Biles’ decision to prioritize her health is a striking contrast to another Olympic headline that ended quite differently. The image of Kerri Strug receiving her Gold medal after vaulting on a broken ankle was previously held up as an example of perseverance and selflessness. The reality is she was pushed to make a career-ending sacrifice by a coach with little regard for her mental or physical health.
Biles made a different decision, and she did so quickly and with the full support of her coach and trainer. That is progress.
As a leader, it’s hard to know when powering through could cause more damage than stopping to regroup. Simone Biles showed us how to prioritize our needs while ensuring there is space for someone else to shine. When we’ve coached and empowered our team members to grow, it creates space to make bold decisions like this. She knew she wasn’t deserting her team. She knew she was sacrificing her headline to make sure everyone else could perform. She showed us that conversations about mental health should be normalized, and we can’t let others’ expectations define our reality.
Kudos to Simone Biles for giving us all an opportunity to see what courage really looks like.