Culture

Why Simone Biles’ DNF Is A Win For Mental Health

Athletes responding to their mental health isn't weakness. It's awareness.

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When I read the news that Simone Biles had withdrawn from the Olympic competition in Tokyo, my heart sank. Not because I was surprised but because I wasn’t. If you’d been paying even the tiniest bit of attention to the pre-Olympics hype, you’d have seen Biles’s name everywhere. She was the American icon, the legend, the leader, destined yet again for gold.

All of this was, of course, warranted. With more than 30 Olympic and World Championship medals to her name, Biles is the most decorated gymnast of all time. She invented new routines so far off the difficulty scale they named them after her. While she was busy making herself a world-class athlete beyond compare, the media was making her a story: Real-girl becomes best-in-the-world. 

This week, Biles showed us just how real she can be, which as it turns out, is way more real than many people can handle. Citing mental health concerns and stress, Biles walked off the mat following a lackluster vault routine. Afterward, she explained that she was not mentally fit to perform such a high-pressure routine and that to do so would be to risk devastating injury. 

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As a competitive ultra runner, I am constantly riding the middle line between productive training and mental and emotional burnout. It’s a daily practice to train my brain and heart as intentionally as I train my body. Sometimes they come together at the exact right moment, and running doesn’t feel like running it feels like flying, like magic. Other times, the equation is more lopsided. I’ve toed the start line at races where my physical training is sufficient, where I’ve logged hundreds of miles at high altitude, but my head is not where it needs to be. I’ve been pulled out of myself and am too focused on my competitors. Or my heart’s not in it, and I’ve lost track of why I’m running, and what it means to me on a deeper level. Maybe I’m running to keep up with others on social media or maintain status in the sport. Fortunately I don’t have the added pressure of sponsors, like Biles and many elite ultra runners, but this doesn’t mean I or other athletes are immune to the relentless pressure to go bigger, farther, longer, and faster, or the endless questions of what’s next?

As athletes we must train our minds as diligently as we train our bodies—whether it’s through meditation or visualization—and often it’s our minds that make the difference between a stellar effort and a champion performance. An athlete who drops out with mental health concerns, then, is no different from one who forfeits due to a pulled hamstring or a torn Achilles. But because mental stress doesn’t manifest outwardly in a limp or a sprain, we often fail to give such injuries their due. They’re easier to ignore, making it tempting to try to “play through” the duress, when, in fact, to properly heal, our minds need the same thing our bodies do: rest. 

But because mental stress doesn’t manifest outwardly in a limp or a sprain, we often fail to give such injuries their due

Nowhere is this more evident than in ultra running, a sport known, for better or worse, for continually upping the stakes, creating longer races—200 miles is the new 100!—encouraging athletes to keep increasing distance until, suddenly, 50 miles seems like a short race. 

None of this is to say that I believe competition is bad, or that I don’t want to win. On race day, I do, and I have, plenty of times. But I know that I will perform better, and run happier, longer, and with less risk of injury and burnout if I value the process of training more than the result, and my mental and emotional health over my victories. At its heart, my practice is fairly simple. I try to limit my intake of social media so as not to get pulled out of my own flow and into unhealthy comparisons with how other competitive runners train (I call this running within myself, and I know I am doing it when running feels deep and imperturbable and joyful, contingent upon nothing). I also try to squeeze in a short Zen meditation practice most mornings before I run. Zen, like ultrarunning, trains the mind to tolerate discomfort, impermanence, and non-attachment—showing up fully for my training, but letting go of where it will lead me.

Last summer, I arrived at the start line of the Speedgoat 50K deeply conflicted about racing. I knew my running was not in a strong place, and by that I mean my mind. I woke that morning with a sinking feeling in my stomach, but I chalked it up to the usual, momentary dread you feel when your alarm goes off at 5 am and you realize you have to get out of your soft, warm bed and run a very long way. Always, by the time I make my oatmeal and drink a cup of coffee, I’ve shaken it off, and in its place is a nervous excitement. Only this time, it didn’t pass. It only got worse. I shouldn’t run, I thought. What if I unwittingly have Covid and pass it to someone else? 

But I am and always have been a trier, and while I did not want to run, I wanted to quit even less. Then the gun went off and within five minutes, I knew I was going to drop. My body was fine, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was my first DNF, and I’d been dreading it ever since I started ultra running nearly a decade earlier, but there was not a single doubt in my mind that it was the right decision for me that day. I learned to trust my instincts and know that when every part of my brain is screaming no, the bravest thing to do is listen. 

Biles’s DNF this week was especially heartbreaking, coming as it did in the middle of what was hyped to be the peak of her Olympic career. Much has been made on social media about her need to toughen up. But her DNF wasn’t a weakness. It was awareness.  Knowing when to rest signals a deep attunement to mind and body. It’s not what makes Biles a failure. It’s what has made her a champion.

But her DNF wasn’t a weakness. It was awareness. 

A few days before Biles’ withdrawal, I attended a dinner where friends were discussing an upcoming regatta, a century’s-old summer tradition where children compete in paddling and swimming races. Two parents at the table spoke of prizes the children take home for winning. “My kids love the regatta because they get these massive trophies for ten seconds of work!” one exclaimed. “When else in their life can they get that?”

At the time it struck me as a sad and telling comment on how far we’ve gone in elevating childhood—and parenting—to a competitive sport. As a journalist and mother, I’ve written extensively about the importance of getting kids outside. Sports and the outdoors help build healthy bodies and strong, confident minds; they teach leadership and resilience, teamwork and creativity, discipline and determination.

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But when we focus solely on winning, we risk pushing our children to the edge of burnout and injury. Biles’ decision shows just how insidious, and dangerous, this win-at-all-costs, performance mindset has become, and how much work we have to do to change the story. 

Yes, we should teach our children to try their very best, while at the same time, openly discussing the value of practice and training, of trying hard and working together, of taking the long view and, most important, of being kind—to themselves and others. 

Yes, we should teach our children to try their very best, while at the same time, openly discussing the value of practice and training, of trying hard and working together, of taking the long view and, most important, of being kind—to themselves and others. 

Before you slam me for not wanting to win, trust me, I am that parent standing on the dock, screaming “Stroke, stroke!” until I’m hoarse. But my daughters and I have these conversations beforehand, and afterwards—on the trails, on the docks, and on the fields. Winning isn’t everything. The trophies won’t be what you remember in the end. Trying is what counts most, and sometimes, as Simone Biles demonstrated so bravely this week, trying your best means knowing when to step aside. 

The work of changing the culture of competition and learning to treat athletes as real people, really real, starts at home, with our children and ourselves. 

Katie Arnold is the 2018 Leadville Trail 100 Run champion and author of the memoir, Running Home.