Everyone knows that sports test a person’s mental fortitude as much as her physical capabilities. Any Little Leaguer is familiar with the ways that fear and excitement can dictate the concentration of her gaze and the swing of her arms as the ball floats toward the plate. The calming of nerves and the walling off of doubts are the stuff of countless sports-psychology books and superstitious pregame rituals, the point being to achieve that ideal state in which the athlete just plays without thinking or feeling. When she performs a spectacular feat under immense mental pressure, we say she has ice in her veins, as if that’s a good thing.
For the most part, the athlete’s triumph over her own mental obstacles is a good thing. The game is that rare arena in life where she can stare down her terrors — of failure, of inadequacy — and overcome them. The opponent the Little Leaguer is facing out there on the diamond is not necessarily the coach tossing a slow lob her way, nor her peers kicking sand at the bases, nor even the jumble of anxieties that is her parents in the stands — it is herself. As David Foster Wallace wrote of one sport, “Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win.”
That all sounds great. Healthy. Life-affirming, even. But at the most elite levels of sport, where limits tend to vanish like air at the upper reaches of the atmosphere, what does it mean to continually improve, to continually transcend? To put it another way: While lots of people know what it’s like to step up to the plate or take a penalty kick, only a very few have vaulted a dozen feet into the air at the Olympics only to find that their trusty inner gyroscope has gone awry, that they are stranded in midair and waiting for the ground to rush up to meet them. What would it take to overcome that sort of mental limit? And would it be worth it?
These are the sorts of questions that have swirled around Simone Biles ever since she took herself out of the Tokyo Games following an apparent episode of what gymnasts call “the twisties” — a “mysterious phenomenon,” as CNN’s Elspeth Reeve explains, in which the gymnast “is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before. Your body just won’t cooperate; your brain loses track of where you are in the air.” Biles was meant to perform a vault with two and a half twists but was able to manage only one and a half in both practice and competition. It sounds like a case of the yips, the neurological condition that causes golfers and baseball players to simply forget the basic mechanics of swinging. The difference is that if a gymnast forgets how to twist while head over heels, the landing could be deadly.
Surprisingly, the response to Biles’s bowing out has been overwhelmingly supportive, a sign that our expectations for how athletes should behave in the face of adversity are changing. An army of conservative trolls did come out in force to condemn Biles for being a “quitter” and the like, though, as Charlie Warzel and others have noted, this predictable response seems engineered to juice cynically designed social-media platforms for culture-wars-style engagement. Still, the counterexamples the trolls trotted out to shame Biles — Michael Jordan playing through the flu in the NBA finals, Tiger Woods winning the U.S. Open with a broken leg, Kerri Strug sticking a landing despite a busted ankle — remain touchstones of mental perseverance. It’s worth examining why Biles may not be inclined to repeat them, beyond the immediate needs of caring for her mind and body.
For starters, she has nothing left to prove. She has won every possible honor, including multiple Olympic golds, and is widely considered the best gymnast of all time. She is one of those athletes, like Jordan and Woods, who have taken Wallace’s idea of self-competition to an almost absurd degree, voluntarily undergoing a series of progressively more impossible challenges. That she was doing this while shouldering the expectations of U.S.A. Gymnastics, an institution that further burdened Biles and other gymnasts by employing and enabling the abuser Larry Nassar, is testament enough to her mental capabilities. (Biles, one of Nassar’s victims, had said one of her motivations for competing this year was to ensure that Nassar’s crimes weren’t forgotten.)
However, in an era in which superlatively credentialed athletes push themselves harder and longer than ever before, and middle-aged freaks like Tom Brady can be seen gunning for yet another trophy for their cabinet, it is still shocking to see someone refuse to play through it — to say, “Enough.” It feels like an important intervention into a kind of pathology among the most elite athletes in the world, which has in turn set the audience’s expectations for athletic accomplishment. In the fabled cases of Strug, Woods, and Jordan, mental stamina was dialed up to another level, where the mind provided the fuel that the battered body could not. Among so many competitors who are in physical terms superhuman, the indomitable drive to win is what separates the gods from the mortals.
That furious drive can also, obviously, warp a person. Biles need only watch the documentary The Last Dance, which features Jordan alone in a mansion drinking enormous glasses of alcohol and hating everybody, to understand that there is a cost to valorizing competition to the exclusion of everything else. Woods’s career self-imploded in a way that seemed like a direct response to the punishing mentality required to dominate every tournament — which didn’t stop the emergence of the narrative that he had to start winning again in order to redeem himself. There are surely superathletes who avoid becoming alienated head cases (Roger Federer seems like a pretty well-balanced individual). But clearly, there is a severe mental toll, oddly underexamined in our sports-obsessed culture, that comes from a life of perpetually breaking the very limits of what it means to be human, with a human’s emotions and vulnerabilities.
I don’t mean to suggest any of this was at the top of Biles’s mind when she decided to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics. She seemed to know, deep down, that she couldn’t go on, and that was that. But in admitting a psychological setback, she illuminated the ways in which the predominant view of mental toughness in ultracompetitive sports can be harmful — not unlike a brain scan revealing the hidden injuries that come from playing a violent game. “[I]s battling and vanquishing the self the same as destroying yourself?” Wallace wondered. Whatever the answer to that question, it appears Biles didn’t want to find out.