Simone Biles is the ideal role model for men who want to be great even if men are too stupid to understand or too prideful to submit to that truth
Time to rethink what it means to be tough
Simone Biles, regarded as the best gymnast to walk the face of the earth by those who know the sport best, did an incredible thing by backing out of the team portion of the Olympics this week. It truly was a stunning move given that you hardly ever see an athlete of that caliber admit their limitations. Breaking news: Even the best of us have limits because even the best of us are human.
Biles has always been and will always be more than her accomplishments and gymnastics. It’s just sad that it took all of this for us to make that clear to her.
Given her performance in the team portion of the Olympics up to that point, her stepping away was not only best for herself, but for her team, allowing them to take home the silver medal, a major accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked.
I’ll repeat that: Biles’s decision to step away made it more likely that her team would medal. It was an act of self preservation that was also the right thing for the team. That’s probably why a lot of men simply can’t see that, because we’ve been taught a pretty stupid definition of toughness.
For those who don’t know the “Mamba mentality,” it refers to NBA superstar Kobe Bryant. In his own words:
"To sum up what mamba mentality is, it means to be able to constantly try to be the best version of yourself," added Bryant, who did just that during his 20 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. "That is what the mentality is. It's a constant quest to try to better today than you were yesterday."
According to some, Biles’s decision was supposedly the opposite of that mantra - even though she was clearly being her best self by stepping aside to make way for others she knew were would perform better than she could at that moment. That, in fact, was the tougher road given that our traditional male-centered view on toughness demands that we forge ahead no matter the consequence to us or others. To continue to beat your head against the wall knowing it would make you and your team worst is just, frankly, idiotic. Truly idiotic. Did I say idiotic? And yet, many men believe that’s real toughness. What’s more is that in Biles’s sport, not being fully there mentally wouldn’t just mean shooting air balls in an important basketball game. It could mean literal paralysis, given the degree of difficult of every routine.
Some idiotic men argued what Biles did would be akin to a LeBron James or Michael Jordan deciding not to play in game 7 of the NBA Finals. That comparison is ludicrous:
But let’s go deeper than that. I saw a number of men argue that real sports legends would never, ever, let their team down during a critical moment, especially not the likes of Michael Jordan. Well, about that…
As is well known, early in Jordan’s NBA career, he couldn’t even get out of the first round of the playoffs, including being swept out twice by the Boston Celtics. He also had a playoff series in which he shot under 40 percent. But even at the height of his powers, when his Bulls teams were winning multiple titles, Jordan came up short in a critical game 3 in a playoff series against the New York Knicks. The Knicks were already up 2-0 in that best of seven series, and given that no NBA team has ever overcome a 3-0 deficit, that was one of the most important games of Jordan’s career - and yet he missed 15 of the 18 shots he took.
The game has long been forgotten because his team won anyway on the strength of his teammate’s contributions. No, he didn’t ask out of the game. But given the way he was playing, clearly not near his best, it would have been easier for his team to win had he done just that. As I pointed out earlier, he could afford to stay in the game and try to contribute in other ways knowing that breaking his neck was unlikely to happen because he did have to do the stunts in the air Biles routinely does.
And, frankly, Jordan didn’t always stay in the game. He walked away from his sport for nearly two full seasons because of the stress of his father’s murder and the expectations of being Michael Jordan the basketball god, among other things. That move was among the reasons he was able to win three more championships once he returned to the sport he loved - because he took care of his mental.
What about Kobe? He’s had moments in which the “Mamba mentality” meant taking only 3 shots in the second half of an important playoff game and totaling only one point during that period. That’s akin to a player of Bryant’s caliber not even being on the court, effectively taking himself out of the game. Bryant once scored 5 points in a blowout loss in the playoffs. And he had a game like the horrible Jordan game referenced above. It came during game 7 the NBA Finals. Because it is the deciding game of a championship series, fans say it is “do or die.” Of course it’s not. What Biles does is a hell of a lot closer to being an actual do-or-die scenario given the degree of difficulty and actual danger she faces every time she launches herself high into the air. In that game 7, Kobe missed 18 of the 24 shots he took but the Lakers won because a teammate made the most important shots.
Tiger Woods, at the height of his powers, had a completely off day that ended in a historic disaster and a loss to a no-name golfer.
Tom Brady threw three interceptions in the second half of last year’s conference championship game against the Green Bay Packers, but his team won anyway so everyone just forgets. For those who don’t follow NFL football: Throwing three interceptions in an entire game is bad. In fact, Brady went an entire 16-game season throwing only two interceptions. To throw three in one half of a big game strongly suggests Brady out of it or bending to the pressure of the moment.
Not too long before that, he threw what would have been the game-sealing interception against the Kansas City Chiefs but got bailed out because a Chiefs player had lined up offsides. In other words, if not for the actions of others, Brady would have at least two fewer Super Bowl rings. He has not always come up big because no one this side of God does - not even the most accomplished among us. It’s just that their failures and missteps get whitewashed as we try to tear down someone like Biles.
These are among the best, if not the best, players of all time in their respective sports and they’ve all had moments where they simply weren’t fully there mentally. Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Larry Bird and so many other top-level, highly-accomplished players have also had moments like that. It’s just that Biles’s situation is unlike most of theirs because while theirs might leave a small mark on their otherwise sterling reputations, Biles literally had her neck on the line.
But it’s even deeper than that. The definition of toughness too many men have valorized has likely led to lot more death and despair, and for no good reason. Even when you do well while ignoring your mental health needs, it comes at an enormous cost, and the bill will come due. That’s why you see such high rates of bankruptcy and drug use and divorce and other kinds of broken relationships among men who seemingly are on the top of the world. What Biles just proved is that there is a way to be the absolute best - because she still is - without running yourself into the ground.
Because of what she did, Biles has a much better chance at a healthy future after gymnastics. If men weren’t so idiotic, they’d take a page out of her book instead of insisting that she do what we’ve long been taught to do.
I know this from first-hand experience. I, too, used to believe that was the best way to define toughness, to grin and bear it, to put your head down and plow through no matter the circumstances. In some ways, it has served me well, helped me overcome some pretty dire circumstances. But in many others, it has left me deeply scarred. It’s why I’m having to deal with a PTSD that got so severe it made me contemplate leaving my family. It’s also likely why my body began attacking itself when I was 40 years old and putting me on what I thought was my death bed.
When I was growing up, I wish someone like Biles had been around to show me that being tough sometimes means pulling back to ensure that my mental health priorities were also being taken care of. And to admit it openly like she did. It’s odd that this has become the norm for “tough” men given that we’ve also been taught about the genius of strategic retreats during some of the most important wars in world history — which allows an army to preserve itself and regroup to be in a better position to fight the next battle. Banging your head against the wall sometimes only leads to a bloody forehead and a fractured skull, not greatness.
The truth is, if more men took the route Biles took this week, more of us would be healthier - and alive. Instead, we’ve decided to kill ourselves to maintain an idiotic veneer of toughness. Literally.
And let’s not forget this one fact: Simone Biles is one of the most-accomplished athletes the world has ever known. She knows what it takes to compete - and excel - at the highest level and under the brightest lights because she has done so a thousand times over. No one needs to tell her how to handle pressure - because she has handled it better than most people who have ever lived. And if she says that she wasn’t in the right head space to compete this week, we should take her at her word. Clearly, she knows herself better than we do.
She’s a proven commodity, not an also-ran who backs down from challenge. Men would be wise to follow her lead.