It is no surprise that in a year like 2021, the Olympics have had some unexpected twists and turns. One especially hot topic of conversation has centered on Simone Biles, commonly agreed to be the best gymnast in the world. So when Simone made the recent decision to step away from her last Olympics, the world had a strong reaction.
As it turns out, the decision wasn’t easy. Not only did she have a case of the “twisties,” she was dealing with the loss of a close family member. Happily, she came back and competed in the beam finals and ended up walking away with a bronze medal. She is now tied for the record for most Olympic medals won by an American gymnast.
This is the latest instance of a trend in athletes making difficult decisions due to stress and burnout. Of course, it’s crucial to prioritize mental health and well-being. Still, it’s also essential to understand how we got here and how to reframe and reprioritize our own goals to improve our performance when we feel overwhelmed.
We can all learn something from the example set by athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, who are under intense scrutiny from the media. Every move they make is hyped up so much that there is undue pressure on them. It makes it impossible to fail, and when you feel that it’s impossible to fall, you fail. You don’t enjoy what you’re doing. All you’re thinking about is what if you cannot perform. If any other gymnast steps off the mat, it means nothing more than a half-point deduction. If Simone Biles steps off the mat, it’s a Twitterstorm. The fear of disappointing the world takes over, and the actual sport becomes secondary.
Let’s take another example. A lesser-known athlete, Romain Cannone, just won the gold medal in the men’s individual épée. Romain was a very average fencer, trained by a Ukrainian Coach in Brooklyn. He was good, but he never won any medals in international competitions. So, in some ways, he accomplished everything he wanted to achieve by qualifying for the Olympics this year. Romain had nothing to lose so he didn’t have to be defensive. There was zero pressure, and because of that, he could fence the way he would have fenced in his club. And with a clear mind and a clear goal, he won.
These two very different situations show us that when we are called upon to give our best performance, it’s a mental game. When you’re under stress, hormones move blood away from your head and into your extremities (commonly known as the fight or flight reaction). As a result, you’re not able to think clearly, and your vision narrows. To perform well, you must shift your focus towards enjoying yourself instead of competing with others. A medal or trophy doesn’t mean as much as enjoying the feeling of flawlessly executing a move you have worked so hard to learn or playing a perfect game.
So how do we reframe and reprioritize? Start by figuring out what makes you happy. And then do that every day. But don’t stop there. You should also try new things. And, frankly, when you try something new, you’re probably going to suck. When there’s room for improvement, you’re able to see and measure real progress. But you’ll also benefit from shifting your focus to learning a new skill. When you do something you’re not good at, you activate parts of your brain you otherwise wouldn’t use. It’s hard. But because it’s hard, you’re concentrating more. You simply won’t have brain space to focus on feeling anxious!
And always remember to enjoy the ride. Simone Biles said it best herself after winning her record-making bronze medal in Tokyo: “My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win. So to be clear, to do beam, which I didn’t think I was going to be, just meant the world to be back out there. And I wasn’t expecting to walk away with the medal. I was just going out there doing this for me.”