Editor’s Note: Prior to becoming one of Colorado’s most-respected counselors, Sara Waters’ early career was spent at Mile High Sports. While her catch-all role in the company encompassed everything from sales and marketing to styling and events, she was also a member of both the Denver Nuggets Dancers and Denver Broncos Cheerleaders. Now a mother of two children, both highly involved in sports and activities, she seemed like the perfect resource to discuss Simone Biles’ decision to bow out of the Olympic gymnastics team competition.
Doug Ottewill: Sara, the floor is yours first. What was your initial reaction when you heard the news that Simone Biles had excused herself from the team competition citing mental health as the reason?
Sara Waters: I felt compassion for Biles. She made a massive decision while knowing, without a doubt, that the whole world would have strong opinions about it. And I felt curious. I can’t help but wonder about the layers of, “Why?” involved in her decision. It is hard to truly know all the rationale behind her choice. Beyond the insight she is providing, I have to imagine that there are layers and layers of her personal experience (now and leading up to the decision) that are far too complex for most of us to understand simply because we haven’t walked (flipped, pirouetted or vaulted) in her shoes.
DO: For me, it’s not as much about Biles and her decision; I agree – this had to be extremely personal, extremely difficult and there’s no way any of us can pretend to fully understand what she was, or is, going through. I also understand the safety aspect of it, something that might apply more to a sport like gymnastics and not as much to something else – say cross country or even basketball. For me, the interesting thing – perhaps the thing that scares me a little – is the reaction from others. While there are certainly some detractors, the vast majority of response is supportive. It feels like Biles is being painted as a hero. Maybe she is. But to me, I’m not sure I’m ready to fully embrace this act “in general.” I worry that it sends the wrong message to young competitors: “When things get tough, when you’re stressed, cite ‘mental health’ and bow out.” Is that too archaic? Too simple? Is there risk on both sides of this solution?
SW: I think that’s a fair point. As a mother of two young athletes, I don’t want my kids to resort to the quickest fix when they find themselves under strain. Interestingly, it requires that we back up a few steps and look at Biles’ decision to travel to Tokyo and compete in this year’s Olympics in the first place. Most of us know, firsthand, how hard it is to say “no” when there are bucketloads of other people’s expectations on our shoulders. On an empathetic level, I can understand why she agreed to compete under all that pressure. But it seems as though that wasn’t the most–clear decision to begin with. Bad things tend to happen when we say yes to something when we really mean no. The voices of external pressures can be hard to silence in our own head. Preemptive self awareness and self advocacy, however, could have helped her to avoid being in this position in the first place.
As a note specifically on mental health, I do feel a shift in our culture. The general public is finally coming around to the reality that we all have mental health struggles. If you’ve ever experienced stress, anxiety, racing thoughts, grief or negative self-talk, you’ve felt the effects of mental health issues. Unfortunately, “mental health” has turned into a sexy buzzword term and is being leaned on as a catch-all for what needs to be considered more of a gradient spectrum of psychological wellness. Part of being truly psychological well is having a high level of self awareness and aligning our decisions with that wherewithal. I do wonder if Biles’ intuition was telling her not to compete before her feet even left U.S. soil and she, perhaps, didn’t listen to it.
DO: There are a couple of concepts you just introduced I want to expand upon. The first is self awareness. What you just said makes total sense. But what about competitive “kids” or even adolescents? It’s such a tricky age, as many times young people are still trying to figure out who they are and what they’re all about. With that as a backdrop, let’s take your son, for example. I know him, I know how competitive he is and how much he enjoys sports – especially lacrosse. Hypothetically, let’s say he’s getting ready to go to a big game and says, “Mom, I’m just not feeling it today. I don’t want to go.” As a mom, aren’t you inclined to have the conversations our parents likely had with us? You’re part of a team. You can’t let your teammates down. Sometimes you have to overcome adversity. All those things that were said – and really believed – when we were growing up. But, because you’re trained in psychotherapy, do you have an entirely different approach?
The second thing you mentioned is that “mental health” has become a sexy buzzword. I couldn’t agree more. And I think that’s my fear. Kids pick up on these things and tend to apply them without necessarily having a full understanding of them. Fifteen months ago, nobody had ever heard of “social distancing” – now it’s part of the lexicon. That might not be a perfect analogy, but I tend to think that holds true with “mental health.” Not long ago, a kid didn’t know that was an option. Now – and as it relates to Biles – it seems like not only an explanation, but a good one. How does a kid go about differentiating normal stresses and challenges – sometimes good things – and real mental health issues?
SW: Such a great question! If my son comes to me and says he’d prefer not to go to a game or practice, I am absolutely holding in my mind and communication with him the commitment he has made. However, before the final call is made, it’s my job to help him learn self awareness by getting curious and asking questions like, “When you say you aren’t feeling it, what does that mean?… Are you feeling sick or in pain? Are you feeling unmotivated or overwhelmed? And what’s that all about?” I think every parent wrestles with both wanting to honor their kid’s experience as their own reality, while also wanting to teach them follow-through and tenacity. Where is the tipping point of throwing down the parent card and enforcing accountability versus trusting that the kid is truly feeling something that makes it against their own best interest to participate? There is no consistent answer. It will vary from kid to kid and situation to situation. This whole conversation forces us to consider that our attachment to a cookie cutter solution won’t consistently work. Rather, being willing to get curious with our kid while sticking close to healthy parenting boundaries will help them learn how to advocate for themselves while also being mindful of – what they will later come to understand as – their integrity.
In order for our kids to become equipped to differentiate between normal stress versus what might be truly considered too much, we adults have to first learn mindful self awareness so that we can do it for ourselves. How many times have you denied the messages of your body and pushed yourself so hard that you became injured? How often do we grind to the point of exhaustion with work when our levels of productivity would actually be best served by listening to our bodies better, chilling out a little bit and getting better about self care? Unfortunately in our culture, pushing through the pain has historically been rewarded, regardless of the consequences. Now we are trying to educate people, adults and children alike, on the importance of mindfulness and self awareness, which is a fancy way of saying we need to get better at listening to our bodies and becoming more conscious of what feels okay to us and what doesn’t. Ultimately, healthy decision making has to be a marriage between self compassion and determination… not one or the other in isolation.
DO: Fair enough. That all seems like sound advice for a parent. But let’s flip the script a bit. Pretend you’re the owner of an NBA franchise. Your star player shows up to the arena and says, “I’m not right in the head tonight. I’m not sure when I will be.” In 2021, it would be frowned upon for an owner to say, “Sorry, suck it up and play.” On the flip side, that same owner is scratching checks for $5-, $10-, $25 million or more. That owner has no issue writing that check when his star tears his ACL, but is he – should he be – okay with the kid whose mind is “broken”? I know I sure would struggle with that if I was the one coughing up that kind of money.
SW: With the current level and amount of empirically-based research that we have in the area of psychological wellness, we now scientifically know that mental health struggles are no less of an injury than a physical wound. Our brains and nervous systems even interpret psychological pain in much the same way that they interpret physical pain. But cultural perception hasn’t yet caught up with the science. It takes time for people to wake up to this kind of shift, especially when there is a potential economic risk or loss involved. We are in a bad habit of valuing the bottom line over our own humanity. As a business owner, I understand that temptation. I can’t even wrap my head around how strong that bias would be if I had millions and millions of dollars on the line. And also, human life and “okayness” is (in my biased opinion) more important. It seems pretty simple to me, I guess. If I was the owner of an NBA franchise and the top dog player struggling with severe depression, for example, was also my son, maybe I’d start to consider this new perspective.
DO: That’s the way I think we can all “hope” someone would look at the situation. But you’re right, just because there’s science and proof behind something, there’s no guarantee cultural norms have caught up. I also worry that there’s always the outlier who abuses this new acceptance. In other words, if a player had big night of partying and didn’t quite feel like playing, and he knows that nobody in 2021 is going to publicly challenge the idea that someone’s “mental health” isn’t right, it’s an easy, safe excuse. You can prove in an x-ray if someone’s arm is broken. It’s not that simple in matters of mental and emotional wellness.
Okay, one last thought. Denver Post columnist Mark Kiszla wrote a great piece on the situation. In essence, he boiled it down to one generalization: This is a boys versus girls situation. Basically, the Biles’ decision wouldn’t fly if she were a man playing sports. And by the same token, a man playing sports would be very unlikely to make the same choice given the way boys are raised, expectations, etc. Her decision, as a woman, was widely applauded. For the most part, I agree with him. It may not be quite that simple, but I’d bet my life that if LeBron James did the same thing in the middle of the NBA Finals, and offered mental health as his reason, he’d be skewered. It just wouldn’t fly, and I’m not sure I see a day on the near horizon where it will, if ever.
SW: You nailed it. When new grace is offered, there will always be people who take advantage of it. That’s a guarantee. The humanistic approach would have to get pretty darn strong so that those unfortunate outliers would get lost in the sea of benefits.
We actually have the ability to “see” quite a lot of psychological struggle, in much the same way that we could analyze and observe a blood test, X-ray or ultrasound. Through brain imaging that looks at the physiology and neuroelectrics, we can see everything from indicators of stress and depression to struggles with focus and motivation. Mental health issues have always been considered as this very ambiguous and invisible perpetrator. But in reality, between looking at symptomology and utilizing the latest science in biology and neurology, it is impossible to reliably deny the existence of psychological unwellness any more than we could look at a fella with a broken femur and conclude, “Eh, that dude is just fine. Buck up buddy.”
What Kiszla wrote has a valid perspective. At this point, we are very well aware of biased gender norms and old fashioned schemas in conjunction with how men versus women “should” handle adversity. You’re not wrong at all, LeBron would get completely flamed. Ironically, a real life example like that by a dude who so many people have on such a high pedestal might be exactly what we need to start breaking down the flawed and outdated stigmas. To bring this thing full circle, I’ll be the first to say I would love nothing more in a role model to my son – for some big-name, male athlete to swallow his pride, put his foot down and say unapologetically that his human okayness is more important than anything else.
We just know too much now to keep thinking of it in the archaic, militant ways of the past. To lean on the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The claim of “mental health issues” may be messy and overused for a little while to make up for lost time. But I have faith that it will balance back out at some point, and we’ll all become much better at integrating both our achievement-based badassery with our vulnerable humanness.