What Youth Athletes Can Learn from Simone Biles
Players, coaches and parents can learn a lot from the Olympic gymnast's decision to withdraw from most of her events during the Tokyo Games.
It’s easy to root for someone like Simone Biles. How can you not appreciate the grace and beauty of her routines, her versatility and the way she makes it all look so effortless?
But Biles did something at the Tokyo Games that places her even higher among the elite. It had nothing to do with winning another medal, or even pulling off one of those Yurchenko double pikes many were hoping she would try.
No, this was something much more impactful that will live on long after she leaves a sport that owes her so much more than she owes it.
Biles listened to her mind and body. Both were telling her to stop, that going any further could lead to catastrophic results.
And you know what? She did the right thing.
Can you imagine the turmoil she must have been feeling? After all, this was the Olympics, perhaps the biggest stage in sports. It may have been her last chance to leave yet another stamp on a career that already has so many.
But it was the best thing she could have done for herself.
Releasing a Burden
Biles has carried the weight of pleasing others for years, whether it be her coaches, fans, the media, USA Gymnastics, even her family. As she kept piling up medals and championships, expectations got higher. Demand for her attention exploded. She also had to deal with the sexual abuse she and many other female gymnasts experienced from Dr. Larry Nassar. Then, there’s the pressure of being a successful Black woman in a society still filled with racism nearly 60 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act.
But by withdrawing from the team competition after nearly crashing in the vault routine, Biles showed a side of her many of us had probably forgotten about.
She has limits.
And she had the courage to say “no” when millions of voices were screaming, “yes” to competing for more gold, more glory.
As I’ve pondered this story and the buzz surrounding it, I couldn’t help but think about the thousands of youth athletes who may be experiencing similar burdens. How powerless they must feel, believing if they falter, or try to step away because they’re physically or emotionally hurting, they’ll let down their coaches, parents and teammates. Any chance of winning an individual medal or a championship for their team would go up in smoke, all because of them.
Unlike Biles, their names and faces may never grace the cover of Sports Illustrated or be featured on television and the Internet.
But none of that should matter. There are some life lessons these athletes can learn from Biles and her decision to do what’s best for her physical and mental well-being. Coaches and parents can benefit from these, too.
Listen to Your Body and Mind
Biles could have ignored the warning bells that were probably sounding in her head. She could have brushed aside the danger of continuing to do things with her body that defy logic and gravity.
I’ve always believed when your body and mind are hurting, they’re trying to tell you something. Ignoring obvious signs of trouble can cause injury or a mental breakdown.
Such thinking goes against every fiber of an elite athlete’s being, along with the coaches and parents counting on them to perform. But is winning a game or a championship worth that risk? Biles didn’t think so, and was willing to step aside and let others on her national team take center stage.
Sure, she already had more medals than most will ever win. But if she summoned up the courage to do what was best for her, kids should be allowed that same opportunity.
Drown Out the Doubters
For once, social media actually showed a lot of love and support for a superstar who did something that goes against the grain. Biles took to Twitter and expressed her appreciation.
Those who dared question her decision were quickly put to shame. When Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic was asked by reporters about Biles withdrawing, he replied, “If you are aiming to be at the top of the game you better start learning how to deal with pressure and how to cope with those moments — on the court but also off the court.”
Djokovic proceeded to throw his racket into the empty stands during a match with Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta. He then smashed another and skipped his doubles match.
So much for learning to deal with pressure.
But the real lesson for young athletes is to not allow misplaced criticism to keep you from doing what you believe is right or in your best interests. Coaches, parents and teammates should also be aware of this when faced with these situations, and lend their support.
Be Secure in Your Own Skin
Just last week, I interviewed a Paralympic sprinter. When I asked him if he had a message for anyone struggling with a condition or disability, he replied, “know that it’s OK not to be OK.”
Biles recognized this. In announcing her decision to step away, she cited a condition known as the ‘twisties’, which refers to a physical and mental condition that impairs the ability to judge the position in the air relative to the ground. Gymnasts and divers are especially affected by it.
Anyone should be allowed to admit something doesn’t feel right without drawing harsh judgment, including the greatest youth athlete. The critics will always have their say, but being willing to come forward doesn’t indicate weakness; it means you’re secure enough in your own skin to do what’s best for you.
Biles ended up coming back to compete in the balance beam event, capturing the bronze. But that doesn’t undermine her decision to withdraw from the earlier events. Perhaps it will bring attention to the mental health crisis millions of people face, not just athletes.
In a youth sports culture that embraces pressure and results, this should be a wake-up call. Biles herself said it best: “Physical health is mental health.”
Sometimes, it’s OK not to be OK.
Hot Takes and Great Reads
Speaking of gymnastics, my daughter told me a story over the weekend involving my granddaughter and her gymnastics class.
Kaylea is a hyperactive six-year-old. She signed up for a competitive club team, but decided she didn’t like it, so now just does it for fun. Like most kids with high energy, she’s constantly in motion, hopping up and down.
At a recent practice, the coach began yelling at her because it looked like she wasn’t paying attention.
“Repeat back to me what I said,” the coach ordered.
Kaylea did so, practically word for word.
“Well, I’m glad you actually heard my instructions,” the coach said. “But you’re distracting everyone else.”
Hyper kids can be a challenge; I get it. But Kaylea was in back of the other girls, so she wasn’t distracting them. Plus, she was obviously listening to the coach and following her instructions.
Attitudes like this take the fun out of it for Kaylea and kids like her, not to mention draw the ire of parents like my daughter for unnecessarily yelling at her kid.
I didn’t know there were sports advice columns. Maybe I’ve been hiding under a rock. But I came across one the other day called Dear Athletic Support, which received a letter from a parent comparing youth sports to a cult. Entertaining, but certainly some something to consider.
With school starting soon, Denver-area CareNow urgent care clinics have some great tips on keeping youth athletes free from injury. This is valuable information for coaches and parents, since injuries tend to spike early in a season.
The violence that continues to sweep across the U.S. is an ongoing topic of conversation among athletes. A Milwaukee sports league decided to put some action behind the words.
The Neighborhood Children’s Sports League (NCSL) held a pep rally to kick off their youth football and cheerleading season and protest violence. Non-fatal shootings in the Milwaukee area have increased more than 50 percent in the past year, particularly among young people.
Read the story here.
Youth teams in the Oxnard, California area are always happy when the Dallas Cowboys come to town for training camp. That’s because they get to run the concession stands and earn money for their sport in the process.
Due to COVID-19, camp wasn’t held there last year, so this year’s fundraisers will be especially gratifying. Click here to read the full story.
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