TOKYO — Elite athletes are hardwired to push through adversity – the saying is “no pain…no gain.” That’s why the news of gymnastics great Simone Biles pulling out of the team and all-around competitions at the Tokyo Olympics may come as a surprise. But one expert says it was the ultimate display of mental toughness.
The brightest lights and the biggest stage can sometimes cause insurmountable pressure.
“Yeah, I say put mental health first because if you don’t then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s ok sometimes to even sit out the big competitions,” says Biles.
A former competitive gymnast herself, Alison Arnold has been a mental toughness specialist that has helped Olympic gymnasts since 1998 with the mental load that comes with greatness. Arnold, who has a PHD in Clinical Psychology, has worked with competitive athletes in multiple sports throughout her career.
“We’re all human and even though we look at these athletes as super-human we all still have our own self-doubt and fears,” says Arnold.
When Simone Biles pulled out of the team competition and later cited problems mentally not physically, Arnold didn’t see a lack of mental toughness.
“To be that vulnerable and that authentic is really true mental toughness,” says Arnold. “That’s why she’s the GOAT, that’s why she’s one of the greatest of all time.”
Arnold hopes Biles’ strength can shatter what others stereotypically see as mental toughness by pushing through pain.
“To kind of take off that superhero armor and say ‘I’m human’ and I think there’s nothing tougher than that type of vulnerability.”
Arnold says one way she often helps athletes dealing with similar issues is through self-talk or having them find their love for the sport, which Arnold believes Biles may have been doing as she emphatically cheered on her teammates to a silver medal finish.
“I think that takes so much courage and again that says something about Simone’s heart and about Simone’s ultimate strength.”