The One Limit Simone Biles Wouldn’t Break

How the sports world’s obsession with mental toughness hurts athletes.

7/30/2021 4:42:00 PM

In admitting a psychological setback, Simone Biles illuminated the ways in which the predominant view of mental toughness in ultracompetitive sports can be harmful. RyuSpaeth writes

How the sports world’s obsession with mental toughness hurts athletes.

For the most part, the athlete’s triumph over her own mental obstacles is a good thing. The game is that rare arena in life where she can stare down her terrors — of failure, of inadequacy — and overcome them. The opponent the Little Leaguer is facing out there on the diamond is not necessarily the coach tossing a slow lob her way, nor her peers kicking sand at the bases, nor even the jumble of anxieties that is her parents in the stands — it is herself. As David Foster Wallace wrote of one sport, “Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win.”

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That all sounds great. Healthy. Life-affirming, even. But at the most elite levels of sport, where limits tend to vanish like air at the upper reaches of the atmosphere, what does it mean to continually improve, to continually transcend? To put it another way: While lots of people know what it’s like to step up to the plate or take a penalty kick, only a very few have vaulted a dozen feet into the air at the Olympics only to find that their trusty inner gyroscope has gone awry, that they are stranded in midair and waiting for the ground to rush up to meet them. What would it take to overcome that sort of mental limit? And would it be worth it?

These are the sorts of questions that have swirled around Simone Biles ever since she took herself out of the Tokyo Games following an apparent episode of what gymnasts call “the twisties” — a “mysterious phenomenon,” as CNN’s Elspeth Reeve explains, in which the gymnast “is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Your body just won’t cooperate; your brain loses track of where you are in the air.” Biles was meant to perform a vault with two and a half twists but was able to manage only one and a half in both practice and competition. It sounds like a case of the yips, the neurological condition that causes golfers and baseball players to simply forget the basic mechanics of swinging. The difference is that if a gymnast forgets how to twist while head over heels, the landing could be deadly.

Surprisingly, the response to Biles’s bowing out has been overwhelmingly supportive, a sign that our expectations for how athletes should behave in the face of adversity are changing. An army of conservative trolls did come out in force to condemn Biles for being a “quitter” and the like, though, as Charlie Warzel and others have noted, this predictable response seems engineered to juice cynically designed social-media platforms for culture-wars-style engagement. Still, the counterexamples the trolls trotted out to shame Biles — Michael Jordan playing through the flu in the NBA finals, Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open with a broken leg, Kerri Strug sticking a landing despite a busted ankle — remain touchstones of mental perseverance. It’s worth examining why Biles may not be inclined to repeat them, beyond the immediate needs of caring for her mind and body.

For starters, she has nothing left to prove. She has won every possible honor, including multiple Olympic golds, and is widely considered the best gymnast of all time. She is one of those athletes, like Jordan and Woods, who have taken Wallace’s idea of self-competition to an almost absurd degree, voluntarily undergoing a series of progressively more impossible challenges. That she was doing this while shouldering the expectations of U.S.A. Gymnastics, an institution that further burdened Biles and other gymnasts by employing and enabling the abuser Larry Nassar, is testament enough to her mental capabilities. (Biles, one of Nassar’s victims, had said one of her motivations for competing this year was to ensure that Nassar’s crimes weren’t forgotten.)

However, in an era in which superlatively credentialed athletes push themselves harder and longer than ever before, and middle-aged freaks like Tom Brady can be seen gunning for yet another trophy for their cabinet, it is still shocking to see someone refuse to play through it — to say, “Enough.” It feels like an important intervention into a kind of pathology among the most elite athletes in the world, which has in turn set the audience’s expectations for athletic accomplishment. In the fabled cases of Strug, Woods, and Jordan, mental stamina was dialed up to another level, where the mind provided the fuel that the battered body could not. Among so many competitors who are in physical terms superhuman, the indomitable drive to win is what separates the gods from the mortals.

That furious drive can also, obviously, warp a person. Biles need only watch the documentary The Last Dance, which features Jordan alone in a mansion drinking enormous glasses of alcohol and hating everybody, to understand that there is a cost to valorizing competition to the exclusion of everything else. Woods’s career self-imploded in a way that seemed like a direct response to the punishing mentality required to dominate every tournament — which didn’t stop the emergence of the narrative that he had to start winning again in order to redeem himself. There are surely superathletes who avoid becoming alienated head cases (Roger Federer seems like a pretty well-balanced individual). But clearly, there is a severe mental toll, oddly underexamined in our sports-obsessed culture, that comes from a life of perpetually breaking the very limits of what it means to be human, with a human’s emotions and vulnerabilities.

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RyuSpaeth pathetic RyuSpaeth Anyone in this thread ever have to change their ADHD meds? If not, and let me try to be kind here, you have no idea what you are talking about, and are not entitled to an opinion. How's that sit with your 'all must have prizes' sneering? Now, run along. RyuSpaeth Stupid asf and biased. u just try hard to defend her, now mental toughness is harmful 🤦🏻‍♂️

RyuSpaeth 😂 what bollox. With writing like this no wonder America has a problem RyuSpaeth If you can’t stand the heat, don’t enter the kitchen or brand yourself as the GOAT. She quit because Lisa g would cost her millions of dollars. RyuSpaeth Never mentioned anything to anyone about her mental stress until after her shoddy performance, Never shed a tear never made a sincere apology to all those who were cheering for her. Never took any of the blame and never will

RyuSpaeth Pathetic. RyuSpaeth Simone_Biles needed to stay at home, not shame her nation and let down her team RyuSpaeth AKA. While being weak minded she illuminated how weak minded the entire Twitter population is 😂 RyuSpaeth Someone tell this to RafaelNadal RyuSpaeth Mental Health is definitely a upfront conversation but the question is being a great athlete what they really want ? Is it what makes them totally happy and let's start to look into their childhoods. Was it all work and no play .....did they live a normal child's life?

Simone Biles breaks silence with heartbreaking mental health revelationThe Olympian tweeted Thursday in Tokyo for the first time since her decision to withdraw from the team and individual all-around events. I also agree with the following. It is not good to aggravate the mental illness that you were suffering from because of the gold medal. Her coming out is the hope of many gymnasts. If she’s so mentally ill and pressed by the spotlight why isn’t she in an inpatient psych unit or back home with her family already? Leave her alone

RyuSpaeth RyuSpaeth Does anyone at New York Magazine know anything about sports? This is a truly idiotic article. RyuSpaeth RyuSpaeth By quitting because I wasn’t doing well and being too much of a weak person to still try my best as every sport is about, I can now rely on the liberal media to turn actual losing into winning.

RyuSpaeth Wtf is this a joke or am I reading it wrong did this writer vomit in their mouth RyuSpaeth What a ridiculous article. Mental toughness in Sport is critical for success, as it is in life, how do you think Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi & a host of others stayed at the top of their games for so long, by ALWAYS giving their all and never accepting second best.

RyuSpaeth Mental toughness is essential to succeeding and producing in any job or industry. It’s part of our development as human beings. RyuSpaeth Clint Eastwood was right: it's pussy generation. Don't fight, don't be tough. Quit, loose and then use the 'golden excuse': mental health. The woke whining brats on twitter will attack anyone who dares to disagree, so who cares about gold medal? blackwomenviews is one of them

RyuSpaeth You attack young black women without admitting you are a racist, the only way you can justify it is by attacking Ben stokes, I dare you 👊 RyuSpaeth Yeah I’d say the person she kept out of the team is having mental toughness with her giving up so easy.

Read Nastia Liukin's heartfelt thank-you letter to Simone Biles'You came here as a gymnast, and you're leaving as a hero.' That is beautiful, and heartfelt letter! Keep trying to spin this. Michael Jordan bows out of Game 7 because of butterflies? Michael Phelps is nervous before the final and chooses not to compete? Nope. Simone Biles quit and let down her team. Was great, but should have given the opportunity to a gymnast more capable.

RyuSpaeth Weak RyuSpaeth Sad thing is if you comment arguing you'll be called a racist, unsympathetic & other non-backed crap. Anyone who has done serial training, pre seasons or boot camps understand what mental toughness is! It's the difference between success & failure. Its ok to fail, but own it!

RyuSpaeth Fucking sort your life out so many people these days are pathetic 🤷‍♂️🤦‍♂️ RyuSpaeth We need mental toughness more than ever in this country. I guarantee the Chinese and Russians are salivating at our fragility. RyuSpaeth It’s tough feeding a family on little money!! Get your priorities right or we’ll all be giving up, and then what? What about the girl who just missed out going hope she is tough enough

RyuSpaeth What bollocks RyuSpaeth Let’s end all professional football matches at 3-0 just incase it gets to 4 or 5 and harms the beaten players mental health. God forbid they summon the courage to stage a comeback RyuSpaeth That’s why Novak Djokovic eats these young millennials and Gen Z kids in grand slams who don’t believe in ultra competitiveness and mental toughness in sport.

RyuSpaeth Anything to say about Ben Stokes stepping back to focus on his mental wellbeing piersmorgan RyuSpaeth Whether it’s harmful or not. These athletes compete to win and you won’t win anything if you’re not mentally tough.

Simone Biles Withdraws From Olympics Citing Mental HealthU.S. gymnastics star Simone Biles withdrew from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics individual and team finals, claiming the overwhelming pressure to win might have caused her to injure herself in her stressed out state. What do you think? Was either stay, with mental illness, or leave with mental health

RyuSpaeth Best not compete if you cant take the heat. RyuSpaeth Isn't it possible anymore to accept that there always will be ppl opposing your point of view without labeling them some derogatory terms it's called elite sport for a reason. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, as they say

RyuSpaeth There is a strong correlation between being woke and having mental health issues. The non-woke are mentally stronger. RyuSpaeth It’s the difference between zeros and heros. RyuSpaeth Whoever wrote this is weird RyuSpaeth I'm so boggled by this article. Mental toughness is literally one crucial thing you need to get you through any sport, especially if you're competitive. Stop spreading nonsensical statements...

RyuSpaeth Isaiah Thomas played hours after his sister was killed in a car crash mental toughness is an extremely important part of sports RyuSpaeth This must be a joke ? RyuSpaeth get a different job then and stop moaning. pathetic. no idea what true stress is. try no income for 10 months and a cancer diagnosis thrown in for good measure.

RyuSpaeth Which means mental weakness can be good?

Simone Biles Reveals What She 'Never Truly Believed' About Herself Until NowThe star gymnast said it was sparked by the outpouring of love and support in response to her Olympics withdrawal.

RyuSpaeth 💩💩💩💩💩 RyuSpaeth What an idiotic statement. If you don't have mental toughness you won't make it. RyuSpaeth jesus christ at some point its gonna be illegal to be mentally tough RyuSpaeth A Call to Protect People and Nature! Thread to Watch/read, T'h'a'c'k'e'r Pass, Nevada: RyuSpaeth this is like an inside job to make sure china and others gets medals and usa dont- self jeopardy lol

RyuSpaeth It’s a cop out, stop abusing the real people with mental illness. This umbrella is getting massive and soon a headache will be one of them. Why go to the Olympics, why compete or was it failure that brought it on. Honesty needed but that’ll never happen will it RyuSpaeth Yo nymag morons. Show me someone tougher than she is. 🖕🏽

RyuSpaeth Focus on our amazing athletes who are competing and showing up. Stop hijacking their media time with the Biles drama. She can write a book or something. RyuSpaeth Mental toughness IMO is just another sign of a patriarchal society which is a net negative RyuSpaeth We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia.

Justin Bieber shares why he relates to Simone BilesIn an Instagram post, Bieber explained why he relates so strongly to Biles' situation: 'Nobody will ever understand the pressures you face!' We understand the pressures... and we understand if you can't take them, step back and let someone else have a try. Biles choice takes courage, mostly because some other gymnast lost her Olympic dream to a girl who didn't want to try. That's sad. LOLOLOLOOLLOL PLEASE Oh poor baby… stars like that will never know what it’s like to scrape by just to get rent and eat food.

RyuSpaeth How can mental toughness be bad ? Being mentally soft or weak is a perk now What are doing here guys this is insanity. 🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️🤷‍♂️ RyuSpaeth I’m a sufferer of mental health and all you’re doing is making a complete mockery of it, “mental toughness” is now harmful ffs don’t be retrded 🤦

RyuSpaeth First they began giving prizes away to kids for participation, then they practically demonised winning by removing winners medals for kids… they’ve brought in weird terms like ‘toxic masculinity’…. Now they’re telling us we are STRONG if we quit. What’s next? RyuSpaeth Sure RyuSpaeth Utter cobblers 🤣🤣🤣

RyuSpaeth The people that write this shit don’t follow sports. High jacking sports to spread their mental health crusade. RyuSpaeth If you want the rich rewards in sport you need to be mentally tough.. RyuSpaeth RyuSpaeth

Simone Biles Reveals What She 'Never Truly Believed' About Herself Until NowThe star gymnast said it was sparked by the outpouring of love and support in response to her Olympics withdrawal. Haters were silenced because love is stronger. Some stardust digger wanted to steal Simone_Biles ‘s shine but bit the dust! piersmorgan had a taste of his own medecine and I guess he didn’t ask for more🤣 It? Considering how she was arrogant and bragging prior to this event, no sympathy.