When the charismatic gymnastics superstar Simone Biles quit on her teammates and dropped out of the women’s finals at the Tokyo Olympics for her mental health and was widely praised for it, the first thing that came to mind was tennis star Naomi Osaka.
Osaka pulled out of the French Open earlier this year, claiming she did so over mental health struggles. The applause was fierce. Osaka became the media’s Golden Girl for “getting real” about mental health and performing the ultimate act of “self-care.”
That act of “self-care” was apparently quitting on her dreams because things were too hard.
This praised act of quitting-when-the-going-gets-tough must have influenced Biles to quit on her teammates and country in the Olympics after her rocky start and after she admitted that the pressure was getting to her.
To no surprise, Biles was influenced by Osaka. She even said so following her decision to pull out of the finals.
“Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” the gymnast told reporters.
“We have to protect our body and our mind. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
“I feel like I’m also not having as much fun — and this Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself and it felt like I was still doing for other people — and that hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me.”
“There’s more to life than just gymnastics,” Biles added, noting that the team is planning to have a “mental rest day” Wednesday.
Mental health, of course, is a serious issue.
But there’s also no doubt that “mental health” has become incredibly trendy — peruse on TikTok for ten minutes and count up how many young people you can view bragging about their self-described mental illness, anxiety, or breakdowns as if they were a badge of honor.
The allure of tending to one’s mental health, too, has become a convenient way to excuse a lack of effort, our shortcomings, or our decisions to quit on things we have committed to rather than face potential outcomes of failure.
And that’s the heart of the issue here. We cannot as a society applaud, praise, and reward young women, or anyone, for choosing to quit rather than possibly fail.
Mental toughness is a crucial part of sports, and it’s a crucial part of life. This is not to belittle mental health struggles or to say we can always overcome pressures and other anxieties with mental toughness. We can’t.
But we should always applaud those who choose to fight, who choose to try, even if they fail.
Failure is part of life, it’s also healthy and where we usually learn and grow the most.
If Biles were to look back on this experience, I find it hard to believe she’ll be more comfortable with her decision to quit rather than if she had tried her best and failed.
Let me suggest we swap out normalizing “self-care” for commitment. Biles, Osaka, and hordes of other young people will be better for it.
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