The champion gymnast, Simone Biles’ decision not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics shocked the world. When she posted on her Facebook page, “I truly do feel that I have the world on my shoulders at times,” I recalled an event that happened to me when I was 11 or 12 years old. At that time, I was playing left field on a softball team, and I was regarded as a better than average player but far from great. Suddenly, a ball was hit in my direction. I had an accurate eye on the flight of the ball and, almost immediately after it was hit, came running in, toward it as fast as I could. I just barely got to the ball as it started coming down and made a shoe-string catch off the ground before it landed. When they saw the ball in my glove, all my teammates cheered.
It being the last out of the inning, the players on my team congratulated me telling me they didn’t believe I could make that catch. In feeling elevated by my fielding prowess acknowledged by my teammates, it became clear to me that my status among my fellow co-players had been raised a notch or two. After the catch, I sensed that I had joined the Circle of the Gods, that is the jocks, who were considered the best players on the team.
Unfortunately, my taste of greatness was ephemeral. A few innings later a ball was hit hard and well over my head, but high enough where I thought I would be able to reach it while it was in the air. As I back pedaled, I remember thinking how important it was for me to catch this fly ball to preserve my stature and stay with the Great Ones. Like most ball players, I found it much more challenging going back to catch a ball as opposed to going in to make the catch. This ball was hit so deep that I found myself at the border of the playing field in some hedges. Even though it was by no means an easy play to make, in my mind I could hear my teammates exhorting to me to catch the ball. At that moment, I clearly remember experiencing a certain amount of pressure in having to make that play. Although I reached the ball while it was still in the air, I was off balance and was unable to secure the ball before it bounced out of my glove. When the inning ended, no one really said much to me and, consequently, I realized that I probably was no longer in the same category as the star players.
I am very much aware of the fact that the pressure I felt at a softball game at camp does not compare at all with what Simone Biles faced in Tokyo. But the point I raise here is that top athletes in whatever sport they compete, because they are constantly in the limelight, may experience a great amount of stress. Let us not forget that those that excel in a sport are only human like the rest of us. Simone Biles captured this sentiment most perfectly after bowing out of the Olympics when she said: “At the end of the day, we’re human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Biles has reminded us that the often-unforgotten mind is vital in the performance of great athletes. When her performance on an event was not up to par, she sensed the struggle to be on top may jeopardize her own health and the team’s chances of winning. Based on her knowledge of herself and the sport, she decided to discontinue her run for more gold medals at the Olympics. Ironically, by bowing out of the competition and not performing as she was expected, Simone acted with courage. I understand and respect her decision as I hope others do.