Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Olympics. With the best gymnast of all time not participating, Team USA won silver, with the Russian team (that’s not really the Russian team) winning gold.
The circumstances of Biles’s withdrawal were unusual. She was not injured. From Zachary Evans’s news story:
“We had a workout this morning and it went OK and then just that five-and-a-half hour wait or something, I was just shaking, could barely nap, I just never felt like this going into a competition before and tried to go out there and have fun,” Biles explained on Tuesday. “Once I came out here I was like, ‘No, mental is not there so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.’”
If you’re a fan of USA Gymnastics, as pretty much every American is when the Summer Olympics roll around, this result is disappointing. No matter what sport it is, it’s disappointing when a team doesn’t win a contest it was expected to win. It’s natural to want some answers, especially in this case. It’s not that the team was outmatched by its opponents. The team couldn’t perform to the level it should have because its best member did not compete.
There might be a gut instinct to be upset with Biles. Why didn’t she toughen up and compete? That’s not the right question to ask, however. Mental preparedness is primarily a question of coaching. It’s on the athlete to perform, but it’s on coaches to make sure the athletes are prepared to perform. So it’s worth wondering whether this was primarily a failure of coaching.
Athletes need coaches, even the most successful athletes, because the perspective of a coach is different than that of a player. The coach is supposed to see the bigger picture. Coaches have seen situations that athletes have not seen yet and know what successful and unsuccessful responses to those situations look like.
Part of that is making sure the team is in the right mindset before competition begins. This is especially true of elite athletes. Phil Jackson had nothing to teach Michael Jordan about dribbling or shooting. Jordan was better at that than Jackson was. Jordan told ESPN Magazine in 1998 what he learned from Jackson:
Calming the body. No matter how much pressure there is in a game, I think to myself: It’s still just a game. I don’t meditate, but I know what he’s getting at. He’s teaching about peacefulness and living in the moment, but not losing the aggressive attitude. Not being reckless, but strategic.
Elsewhere in the same piece, Jordan talks about Jackson and his college coach, Dean Smith:
The main reason we do so well is Phil. I like him because of the atmosphere he creates. Sometimes he can say one word, one sentence, and shake you up, make you think. Like Dean Smith did. Instead of yelling at you, criticizing you, Dean would say something like, “Would you make that play if you were in high school?” It’s not a curse, but you get the point. At a crucial point in a game Phil might call a timeout after one of us took a bad 3-pointer, and he’ll say, “You must be really hot, aren’t you?” Or “Toni, he’s on a roll.” Instead of saying, “That was a dumb shot.” It makes you think. And we all need to be checked and criticized to some degree.
That’s all mental. Athletes can lose their way in the heat of the moment. It’s the job of coaches to make sure that they don’t.
There’s no doubt that Simone Biles is physically capable of performing. She says she is, and we know from her past accomplishments that she is. She’s still the greatest gymnast ever. There was some failure of mental preparation, however, that led her to believe she was unable to perform in the team finals. If it was a failure of coaching that took her out, let’s hope that the coaches are able to figure out what they did wrong and get her back on the mat.