On Tuesday, Simone Biles, the record-breaking American gymnast, withdrew from the Olympic team finals after an uncharacteristic falter on the vault, saying that she was not in a good mental place to compete.
“I can’t risk a medal for the team, so I need to call it,” Biles explained after the event. “And you usually don’t hear me say things like that, because I usually persevere and push through things.”
As a result of her decision, teammates stepped in for her on the uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise, and Team USA ultimately won silver.
Biles’ decision to exit the competition for her well-being, despite global pressure to perform, has career lessons for us all. You are probably not one of the greatest elite athletes ever to perform a sport, but you may be asked to “save” a project or a team, even if that means sacrificing your time, well-being and energy.
Let Biles offer you a career lesson in how to respond.
Work martyrdom tells you “no one can do this job but me.” Biles knew better.
Work martyrdom happens when there is immense pressure ― either internal or external ― to keep pushing past physical and mental limits for the sake of your organisation because of the belief that you alone can do it.
“There is this sense that ‘If we don’t do it, it’s not going to get done,’” said Adjoa Osei, a licensed clinical psychologist and diversity, equity and inclusion consultant. “You ignore those internal or bodily cues that say ‘this is too much.’“
But Biles listened to what her body and mind were telling her. The 24-year-old, who has won 30 Olympic and world medals, said she felt “the weight of the world” on her shoulders before the event.
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” she wrote on Instagram. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!”
Outside of her responsibilities on the mat, Biles is a role model who uses her celebrity to advocate for her teammates. She revealed in 2018 that she is one of the hundreds of young women who were sexually abused by former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, and she is the only self-identified survivor currently competing in Tokyo.
She has criticised USA Gymnastics for its years of failure to act on complaints against Nassar and cites the need for organisational change as a reason she returned for the Olympics. “I feel like, if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would have just brushed it to the side,” she has said.
Putting all hopes and goals on one person is an unsustainable amount of responsibility for one person to carry at their job, superstar athlete or not. “One of the common signs of organisational burnout is over-relying on someone who is very competent … because you put too much responsibility on people you consider competent. Everyone should be asked to be at their best,” said Lisa Orbé-Austin, an executive coach and licensed psychologist. “It shouldn’t just be left on one or two people to save the day.”
Orbé-Austin noted that this is unhealthy for everyone involved, because when others buy into the narrative that there can only be one superstar, they can limit themselves and think, “That person is there to help us win. Without them, we are going to lose.”
Biles said when she realised she was not in the right mental space to compete, she made the decision to withdraw for her safety and for the team’s chances at medaling. “We want to walk out of here,” Biles said. “Not be dragged out of here on a stretcher or anything. So it’s like, got to do what’s best for me, and that was what was best for the team.”
When one superstar teammate needs to step back, the healthy way forward is for other teammates to step up and have the chance to develop their skills and capabilities. And that’s what happened.
Biles was seen cheering her teammates on from the sidelines. After winning silver, Biles’ friend and teammate, Jordan Chiles, told Biles and the press that “This medal is definitely for her, because if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be here ... Yes, we did this, but you’re part of this team and you deserve it, too.”
Biles is part of a paradigm shift of superstar athletes prioritising their health.
Along with tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is also speaking up about mental health, Biles is part of a new generation of elite athletes who are declining to sacrifice their health for the job.
In past Olympics, sacrificing your body for the team was encouraged. American gymnast Kerri Strug famously competed through an ankle injury in her final vault attempt to win a team gold in 1996. When she got injured, coach Béla Károlyi urged her, “Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold.” In video footage of the event, the crowd cheers when Strug successfully lands the vault and immediately lowers herself to her knees and crawls through obvious pain, wincing. Because she pushed past her body’s limits, Strug was idolised.
“For a lot of athletes, and a lot of people, we’re told to push beyond the boundaries of what is healthy for us, and I think it is a really destructive and bad message,” Orbé-Austin said. She noted that this destructive thinking can send a message that it should be celebrated that you are burnt out, overworked and exhausted.
By publicly talking about reaching her mental limit, Biles broke away from sports tradition and demonstrated that knowing your boundaries and putting your well-being first is an accomplishment worth celebrating, too.
On Tuesday, Strug herself shared that she was proud of Team USA’s performance.
This new generation of athletes recognizes that life is bigger than one team competition and that success is not a medal or other award someone else gives you. Biles said she was inspired by Osaka speaking up about her mental health, and both women are deciding what success should mean on their own terms ― a lifelong lesson more of us can learn.
Osei said that learning to think about other markers of success is a healthier way to frame your wins. “If we align with these dominant systems that can be oppressive, it’s never going to be enough: ‘If you win 20 medals, why didn’t you win 21? You went for this, but you didn’t do that,’” she said.
Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your career is to protect it for the future and refuse to participate. Take it from Biles.
“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human too,” she told the press after the team event. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”