If our children are old enough to be watching the Olympics with us, there’s a good chance they have already seen a fair amount of coverage and the reactions — both good and bad — surrounding Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the competition due to mental health concerns. And that decision presents us with an opportunity to talk to our kids about the importance of prioritising their mental and physical well-being.
“There is no health without mental health,” said Dr. Helen Egger, a child psychiatrist and the co-founder of Little Otter, which provides mental health support for children and families. “Mental health is part of our overall health and wellness.”
Our children may never understand what it is like to be an Olympic athlete, but there will undoubtedly come a time when they feel pressured to sacrifice their long-term health for short-term accomplishments. When that moment comes, they need to be ready, and that’s a lesson they can take away from Biles.
How Biles’ decision is a departure from gymnastics culture
Biles’ decision is a seismic shift from previous years, when the expectation was that Olympic gymnasts would prioritise winning over all else — including their own health and safety. The most notable example was during the 1996 Olympic Games, when U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug performed a vault routine with an injured ankle, after which she had to be carried to the podium by her coach.
Strug became a national hero, but she also never competed again — all for performing a routine that, in spite of her coach telling her she needed to do (rather than let down the rest of the team), was unnecessary for her team to clinch the gold medal.
As for Biles, her decision to withdraw was due to developing a case of “the twisties,” which is when a gymnast loses track of where they are in the air, as well as the bodily knowledge of which way their body is supposed to be twisting.
This phenomenon, for which there isn’t much knowledge about how or why it happens, is often brought on by a mental block and can take days, weeks, even months to work through. Meanwhile, in addition to being frightening, competing with a case of the twisties is incredibly dangerous, as gymnasts are flying through the air without their usual awareness of where the ground is.
Prioritising health and safety over winning takes courage
For Biles to make the decision to prioritise her own health and safety, in the face of enormous pressure to win, showed an immense amount of courage. This can be an example for our children about how, even in a world that glorifies winning at all costs, we are more than our successes.
“[Biles’ decision] gives children an opportunity to realise we are not our accomplishments, we are not what we do, we are full people,” Egger said. As Egger notes, our children need to know they will be loved and accepted for who they are, rather than what they accomplish.
As adults, we have the responsibility to protect children from abuse
As much as Biles’ decision is an example for our children, this is also an opportunity for parents to reflect on what their responsibilities are toward their children when it comes to protecting them.
“This isn’t just a story about a young woman who was pushed in terms of the athletic stoicism and perfectionism,” Egger said. “It’s a young woman, who, along with a lot of her colleagues, experienced a lot of terrible abuse over the years. We have to think about the responsibility of adults to protect children.”
As Biles has said in interviews, part of her motivation for competing in this year’s Olympics was to be a voice of change, as she is one of hundreds of gymnasts to say they were sexually abused by USA Gymnastics’ team doctor, Larry Nassar. Although USA Gymnastics had received reports about Nassar a full year before the first investigative story was published, they kept their knowledge secret, during which time he continued his abuse.
Biles is now the last victim of Nassar’s abuse who is still competing in the sport, and as she told Hoda Kotb in an interview in April, “If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side.”
For Biles, along with the hundreds of other gymnasts who were abused over a period of decades, they needed the adults in their lives to protect them, rather than turning a blind eye to what was going on. Instead, many of these adults failed Biles, as well as her teammates.
“When children have traumatic experiences, that impacts [them] in every way,” Egger said. Although we can never fully protect our children from trauma, we do have a responsibility to do our best. If the worst does happen, our responsibility is to get them the help they need, as well as to teach them that asking for help is an act of courage.
“When you say ‘I am not ok, I need help,’ that is not a sign of weakness, and it’s not selfish,” Egger said. “That is the most important thing you can do, and [Biles] did that, and then had the courage — knowing people would be upset with her — to be there and to cheer her teammates on.”