Mental blocks and Mental Health
Updated: Sep 29
Squad Safe consultant Joey Gamper Cuthbert on why Simone Biles' withdrawal from the USA Olympic squad has become the catalyst for a wider coaching discussion on mental health, and asks the question - what should coaches be doing to support and develop a culture in their gym that promotes well being and psychological safety?
It feels like the whole world is talking about Simone Biles withdrawal from the USA Gymnastics Team in Tokyo. From those who think she "let down her country" to those lauding her for prioritizing her health and well being, it seems like everyone has an opinion!
The fact is, if you've never performed a skill that involves elements of twisting or inversion (gymnastics, cheerleading, diving, trampolining) at an elite level, it might be hard to understand the rational behind Biles' withdrawal from competition. Expert tumbling coach Sahil M from Addicted to Tumbling helps explain:
"She got lost in the air during her vault. If you've never tumbled or done any "inversion" based skills at a high or intermediate level (I'm talking more than 1 flip and more than 1 twist) then you have NO idea what it's like to suddenly feel lost in the air and losing your spatial awareness; especially at a competition as big and important as the Olympics.
Too many people think that BECAUSE she's so consistent, that her skills are as easy to execute a 3 point shot or a baseball bat swing. It's like no; you miss a shot? There's zero physical consequence. A few mins later you get to try again. But if you miss a landing on lets say a triple double... there's a chance you may not walk for the rest of your life! That pressure alone would crumble a majority of ATHLETES... let alone the average couch-rider.
Now, getting your spatial awareness back doesn't just HAPPEN... you have to work through it. It could take a week long or month long training session. Simone knew she didn't have time for that, so she did the most mentally tough thing possible; knowing her limits and the state she's in and that this "mental block" could spill over in all the other events she tapped out.
She did NOT "quit" on her team. Trust me; I know a quitter when I see one. Instead, she let them shine in their own light. She knows them well and knew they had the talent, the skills, the routines and everything else needed to achieve a podium finish.
As for WHY this happened? Could be many factors... but the past abuse she suffered along with the constant unfair treatment from the judges all likely boiled over; the billionth feather that broke the camels back. That's just my 2 cents. I'm not Simone. Nor do I know her personally... so I can't speak for her. Either way; mental toughness is not the relevant topic. The girl's won a Gold medal on broken toes before. She's as tough as they come."
Similarly, in her Facebook post shortly after Biles' withdrawal, former Olympian, Elizabeth Betty Okino Benson, explained the “twisties” from a gymnasts' perspective, and why understanding your mind as well as your body is critical to landing on your feet...
Good mental health plays a critical role in athletes’ ability to focus and perform tumbling skills effectively and safely. This isn't about developing "mental toughness" it's about developing emotional agility and the body awareness to understand when you can push through and when it's sensible to stop. Simone Biles is a role model for putting her health and safety first when there was so much pressure to push through. Unlike other occasions, crucially this time, her coaches supported her decision.
Angie Woodson's now viral post about gymnast Elena Mukhina is a perfect example of what could be at stake if an athlete chooses to push through or is forced to push through when they should have stopped. Despite asking to stop, Mukhina was forced by her coaches to continue in a competition on a leg that wasn't fully recovered from a break. The result was that she slipped on the beam, hit her chin, broke her neck and became quadriplegic. As Sahil said, the potential pressure of that type of outcome would crumble the majority of athletes!
I have seen numerous social media posts since Biles' withdrawal (including those from coaches and athletes), concerned that this incident will spark a spate of excuses from young athletes who say they can't or won't perform skills, using mental health as an excuse, when really they're just being lazy.
To those coaches saying this, I would ask what they are actively doing in their gym to promote intrinsic motivators in their athletes? What do they think is the motivation behind the excuse - if an excuse is what they think it is? Why would an athlete choose not to try something? Are they scared? Unprepared? Are their other pressures at play? Your job as a coach is to support athletes to be able to achieve, not just dismiss their concerns as lazy. Research in sports science and psychology tells us unequivocally that athletes perform better when they are working in an environment where they feel psychologically safe, and when their motivators to succeed are internally driven, rather than forced upon them by coaches through fear.
To those athletes saying this, I would ask that they question who gave them this belief? Where has this narrative come from, and who is gaslighting them into thinking you will be perceived as lazy if you stand up and protect your own mental well being?
From a safeguarding perspective, I leave you with the following questions to discuss in your gym with your coaching staff...
Does your gym promote a culture where athletes have the autonomy to speak up and say stop when they need to? How do you communicate this to your athletes? How do you respond when an athlete says they need to stop?
What do you do in your gym to ensure athletes understand their own bodies, mental preparedness and the role sports psychology plays in performance?
Top image shared from The Jared Monroe Foundation