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Mental Health

Simone Biles and the person mattering more than the profession

As a community, we are adept at calls for accountability, but less encouraging when it comes to rehabilitation with care

If someone had told me in 2020 that Simone Biles had the “twisties,” I would have assumed that she had come up with another new, previously thought impossible gymnastics skill. Or maybe the “twisties” were a bunch of Biles enthusiasts, like a Beyhive of sorts.

The world learned what the “twisties” were at the Tokyo Games in 2021 — a certain kind of mental block that a gymnast can experience as they are in the air during a twisting skill. We were used to Biles’ jaw-dropping performances in the vault, but not like this.

Her attempt and the commentators’ subsequently audible gasp are both triggering. In different ways, they are both pictures of professionals trying to contain themselves. What happens next is even more revelatory, as Biles goes to encourage her teammates, uplifting them in their expertise and ability.

It’s easy to attribute narratives to someone as brilliant as Biles. Olympic champion. American icon. Greatest of all time. They all felt deficient in that moment. Even the umbrella of “mental health” didn’t capture the fullness of her struggles.

With the ultimate respect to gymnastics, which requires intense practice and the actual skill of gods and goddesses, life itself remains the highest standard of competition for humans. The sport of gymnastics can convey one thing about life and mental health profoundly – it’s not just an individual sport, but a team sport as well.

“Lost in the air” – the uncertainty that Biles expressed because of the “twisties” – sounded like an analogy for mental health. I have no idea what it’s like to lose my sense of being in midair, but I do know what it’s like to snap out of a daydream behind the wheel of a vehicle. It’s scary and sobering. 

Biles’ response, seen as radical by some, was to step away from gymnastics entirely for two years. It might not have been relatable to people who see life through the fragile repetition of paychecks, but it was no less refreshing. In a society where we often value production over humanity, saying “I don’t feel like myself today” carries a mighty weight. That stress is burdensome for a family caretaker or someone on an assembly line, let alone the greatest gymnast of all time.

Looking through the prism of mental health, Biles’ return to competition in August feels like only part of her story. But my goodness, what a chapter. She has not only asserted her dominance in the sport, but earlier this month, she became the most decorated gymnast in history, male or female.

Tennis player Naomi Osaka plays a forehand against Danielle Collins in the US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Aug. 30, 2022, in New York City.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I was reminded of a Twitter exchange between Biles and an aptly named user that the greatest of all time doesn’t owe us a thing. “Remember like five months ago we didn’t think Simone would ever compete again,” a user named Grace wrote.

“Real talk I didn’t think so either,” Biles retweeted.

Conveyance is everything in the space between our ears – and the world around us. The willingness of athletes such Naomi Osaka, who says she will return to tennis next year, and Biles to share their struggles and the ability to do so with articulation and depth are powerful. 

Some of those struggles don’t play out with the same level of perspective or patience. Kai Jones, who was selected by the Charlotte Hornets as the 19th overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, was waived after a trade request and a series of controversial social media posts. Former Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Chandler Jones, arrested twice in the last month for violating a domestic violence protective order, said he was hospitalized against his will in September.

Empathy can be challenging when we see the terms “domestic violence” or see “million-dollar athletes” acting out in the view of the public. As a community, we are adept at calls for accountability, but less encouraging when it comes to rehabilitation with care.

Around the same time that Biles suffered through the “twisties,” former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman had an episode at his wife’s parents’ house in July 2021. Several months later, in September 2021, Sherman was back in the NFL and offered a commentary reflective of what more people need when mental health challenges arise.

“I’ve adapted and changed some things in that respect, in terms of the mental wellness side of things, in talking to counselors and getting some help, getting on some medication that I needed,” Sherman told The Washington Post. “That’s helped tremendously as well, having a supportive family, a supportive wife.

“It took a lot. It took a village.”

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott looks to pass during a game between the Los Angeles Chargers and the Dallas Cowboys at SoFi Stadium on Oct. 16 in Inglewood, California.

Michael Owens/Getty Images

The challenge for us as a village now is to be consistent with our support. I continue to empathize with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, because I lost my brother as well. I saw the name of Prescott’s late sibling and almost did a double take. Jace looked like my little brother’s name, James. My younger brother was my first roommate, my first teammate.

What Prescott described some years ago in the face of a pandemic was his own anxiety because of quarantine, as well as the burden that Jace endured by being the primary caretaker of their mother, who died from colon cancer in 2013.

“… You can’t even put into words the burden,” Prescott said of his brother. “I mean, it’s something only Jace knew. And he didn’t necessarily share that.”

In different ways, those were pictures of men who suffered in isolation. After my brother died, I became my dad’s primary caretaker for a time. I know what it’s like to go to sleep at night, wake up to the morning light and still be in darkness.

Part of why I kept to myself was the burden of responsibility – to be a good dad and husband. I can only imagine how little refuge there is as the quarterback of one of sports’ most recognizable brands.

That’s why it was good to see a pivot from the usual banter after a Cowboys collapse recently during a recent episode of The Stephen A. Smith Show, where he showed compassion for Prescott after the Cowboys’ 42-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 8. Smith has also been open about the death of his mother and brother.

“I never thought about killing myself. But for two years, every single day at some moment in time, I wished I was dead,” Smith said. “That is how bad my life was without my mother.”

There are folks who question whether self-care is “radical.” I believe it is the start of profound change. I applaud Biles for understanding that if she didn’t take care of herself, she would not only be doing a disservice to herself, but to the people around her. That is a lesson for the individual.

The lesson for the community at large is to understand that production isn’t everything – the person matters more than the profession. We drive men and women to the brink of insanity because we want them to perform like machines. But we are called to be more than computers. We are called to be compassionate.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.