Texas Tech University

What Students Can Learn From Simone Biles

Lucy Greenberg

July 30, 2021

In a shocking decision made earlier this week, U.S. Olympic gymnast, Simone Biles, dropped out of the individual all-around competition in Tokyo. Here is what students can learn from her decision.

News channels and social media feeds have been saturated with Simone Biles' name since Tuesday. The 24-year-old Olympic champion, who won five medals in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro made an unprecedented decision this week to forego further competition due to her mental health.

Amanda Wheeler
Amanda Wheeler

This kind of decision is rarely seen at an event such as the Olympics. Biles' decision was even more controversial due to her superstardom status as she is considered one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, as evidenced by her creation of four original moves that bear her name. So, needless to say, the world was ready to see what she would do next.

For these Olympic games, it doesn't seem spectators will have that chance.

In the wake of Biles' decision, there have been those who openly support the prioritization of her mental health, and others who have criticized the decision. No matter one's opinion of Biles' choice, there are lessons to be learned from it.

Amanda Wheeler, assistant director of Texas Tech University's Student Counseling Center and licensed psychologist, provides perspective and examples for what students and those involved in academia can learn from Biles.

What do you think of Simone Biles' decision to pull out of the individual all-around competition this week? 

Wheeler: I think this was a great example for many around the world. We are often taught that we should ignore our mental health – that it's just not a priority. Biles being able, as a top athlete, to share that her mental health is just as important to her wellbeing (and performance) as her physical health is an important decision we can all learn something from.

Why do you think certain people criticized her decision? 

Wheeler: There are many reasons that people are criticizing her decision. Our society often sends the message that we should push our mental health aside, so some people may not understand the severity of what she could be facing. In addition, we tend to hold celebrities and athletes to higher standards. Many athletes have been celebrated for pushing through immense physical pain to achieve gold. However, it also is important to realize what message that might be sending to the rest of the world. Is a gold medal (or straight As) worth our physical and mental suffering?

In her original statement to the media, when asked if she would be competing in other events, Biles said, “We're going to take it day by day.” What can we learn from her answer? 

Wheeler: Just like physical health, our mental health can change from moment to moment and day by day. We need to realize that taking care of our mental health can make a big difference in our wellbeing and in our performance. At the same time, setting aside or pushing away our mental health difficulties also can make a big difference, but not for the better.

Physically speaking, Biles is healthy and able to compete. She cited her mental health as the reasons she is not competing, stating that it's frustrating to be “fighting with your own head.” How can people who do not struggle with mental illness offer more compassion to those whose fight is unseen like this? 

Wheeler: In order to gain compassion, it's important to try to think about how others might be feeling. We all experience difficulties, so if you don't experience mental health difficulties, surely you've experienced other challenges such as physical health concerns, financial struggles, etc. Given that, if you wouldn't expect someone to be at their very best with a broken leg or when they're having to work three jobs to get by, it's likely that someone also is not at their best when struggling with mental illness.

You also can recall a time you felt overwhelmed. What did that feel like? How did different areas of your life become affected? Remember moments like these when someone else is not at their best.

Mental health is a taboo topic, especially in athletics. Do you see this same attitude in academia? How might students face the taboo nature of this topic? 

Wheeler: Luckily, mental health is becoming less and less of a taboo topic overall. Students, though, have often told me that they receive messages from others in their life to just push their mental health struggles aside, or to just “push through.”

Remember, if you wouldn't say that to someone with a visible physical injury, you probably should not say it to someone with an invisible mental illness.

The best way we can combat the taboo nature of mental health is just to start talking about it. The more we talk about something with others, the more likely we are to gain support and realize we're not alone in our struggles. The shame and guilt associated with taboo topics lessen when we openly talk things out.

For the time being, Simone Biles made the best choice for herself and her wellbeing. What are some ways students can choose their own wellbeing? 

Wheeler: Checking in with themselves on a daily or even hourly basis is really important. Take the time to ask yourself how you're really doing. Knowing your own limits and boundaries also is a great way to choose your own wellbeing. If you don't feel you can do much, focus on what you can do, even if it's small.

Also, engage in physical and mental self-care. Remembering that physical well-being can affect mental wellbeing and vice versa. Do things you enjoy doing that don't feel like a chore. Get adequate sleep and nutrition, get adequate social interaction. These are all things that will help students' overall mental health and wellbeing.

Lastly, as students come back to campus to start the 2021-22 school year, what are the mental health resources available to them on campus? 

Wheeler: Texas Tech is great in so many ways, one of which is that it has a variety of mental health resources on campus. The Student Counseling Center (SCC) is a resource that helps students become their best selves while going to school. The center does this by teaching students some ways to effectively cope with whatever they struggle with.

The SCC accepts walk-in appointments Monday – Friday, 12:30–3:30 p.m. Students will fill out paperwork, meet with a counselor and determine what the best treatment option is for their specific struggle. We have options for self-help, workshops and group/relationship/individual therapy as well.

The SCC also has a MindSpa which is a state-of-the-art relaxation room that includes a massage chair, biofeedback technology, yoga mats and relaxing music. We also actively refer students to other resources on campus that might better fit their needs. Students need to be aware that the walk-in appointment may take up to two hours, so plan accordingly.

The SCC is located in room 201 of the Student Wellness Center, at 1003 Flint Ave. Lubbock, TX 79410. Students also can call at (806) 742-3674 or visit their website at www.depts.ttu.edu/scc/.