by Dr. Charles Benight
In thinking about this Director’s Corner, I kept coming back to one person as an example of resilience that I think we should all think about, Ms. Simone Biles. Simone is an amazing example of a resilient person in every sense of the word. I believe this, not because she is one of the most decorated gymnasts of all time with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, nor due to her tenacity to overcome injuries and challenges related to her athletic performance. No, it is due to her capacity to stand up in front of the world and say, “I need help.” The courage this step took for anyone to do in front of the entire world, during the Olympic competition, is almost beyond comprehension.
Resilience is built from a deep sense of one’s own strength to manage adversity. Of course, Simone’s athletic career has created countless opportunities to dig deep and overcome setbacks, but what her career did not support was exposing any weakness. Beyond having to manage the intensity of being on the world stage as an elite athlete, Simone also had to cope with being sexually assaulted by serial predator, Larry Nassar.
When individuals are exposed to trauma there is no “one size fits all” response. For elite athletes who have spent most of their lives learning to cope with pain and pushing themselves beyond their limits, suppressing emotional pain becomes an unfortunate, but natural part of their skillset. At this level, there is no room for self-doubt and perhaps more importantly, self-compassion.
We are currently seeing a large wave of young people seeking mental health support. There is speculation this is due to anxiety from the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme political polarization, and the accelerating destruction of our natural world, among other ongoing crises. Undoubtedly, many of these issues are contributing factors to the increase. But I also wonder if it is partially related to the courage of Simone Biles, a world-renowned gymnast, who had the strength to publicly say “enough is enough, I need to focus on my own mental health.” There are other elite athletes such as Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps, just to name a few, who have opened up to the world about their struggles, exposing their deepest vulnerabilities and conveying the message that it’s okay to ask for help.
There is a lesson to be learned here in that we all need to think of resilience, not just as an internal drive to achieve or the ability not to give up when dealing with hardship or adversity, but as the ability to seek help and support from others when we are hurting. In fact, this is an important component of resilience. As human beings, we are wired to find comfort and support through social connection and put simply, we are more resilient together than we are as individuals! Our culture has a myth about rugged individualism as if we all need to be strong and show courage in the face of extreme situations, accepting the burden alone. Our movies and TV shows are filled with these character types as well, but in reality, the situation is more complex.
Simone Biles has shown great courage, demonstrated the power of resilience, and conveyed that we all have vulnerabilities, even highly accomplished, elite athletes like herself. More importantly, she has shown us that it’s okay to speak up, ask for help, and show ourselves kindness.