No one would call me a sports fan. I don’t follow teams. I don’t care which final competitions are happening. I’ve hosted anti-Super Bowl parties where we play board games instead of turning on the football game. However, I’ve always enjoyed watching the Olympics, especially the individual sports. While I am not an athlete myself, I did learn all the swimming strokes as a kid – even the butterfly – though I never had the chance to swim competitively. I never lost interest in the sport, so I suppose watching the Olympics scratches that itch a bit. During the off-years, if an article about Olympians, well-known or up-and-coming, catches my eye, I read it. I follow the Olympics and Olympians, but loosely.
I have kept up with the news about USA gymnastics and the abuse many young women suffered at the hands of Larry Nasser and those who enabled him. I’ve read quite a few articles about Simone Biles over the years, and I’ve probably read ten just in the past week. I have been horrified at the vile things said about her withdrawing from Olympic competition, calling her a quitter and saying she has let down her team, failed as a gymnast, and is giving into fear!
Before I get into my response to those kinds of comments, I want to talk about the pressure of performing. This is something I know about, and I think it is one of the reasons I am drawn to watching these amazing athletes competing in their individual sports. In some ways, competing in the Olympics is a bit like auditioning or performing solo, though the audience size is drastically different.
The amount of pressure one feels is going to be unique person to person, and situation to situation, based on various factors. But the commonality is that years of preparation lead up to one point in time. And that point in time is the critical moment, the succeed-or-fail, the win-or-lose, the land-well-or-fall-on-your-face, literally or figuratively, moment. One hopes that the years of practice, the constant drill, the neural pathways that have been forged from brain to muscles, will all execute with precision leading to the desired goal.
But there’s always a chance something will go wrong.
We are not machines. We can’t simply replace a frayed wire or patch up something with duct tape.
I feel tension in my gut and in my shoulders, neck and head. In my senior year of high school, I had a major (to me) audition for the All-State Concert Band on my tenor saxophone. There were only two spots available, and it was really important to me to be chosen. For the three days leading up to the audition, and during the audition, I could not move my neck and had a splitting headache. If the mind is telling the body to tense up, no amount of Advil or shoulder rubs can undo that.
I know what it’s like to race to the bathroom before an audition, to perform with hands, arms, and shoulders that are incredibly tight, to play the piano with sweaty palms and shaking fingers, to fight to stay upright while feeling dizzy during a saxophone performance. And those were “normal” days when, musically, the pathways were working well and the only thing I had to deal with was my mental state.
But sometimes my fingers just won’t work.
And I mean they just won’t work. At those times, somehow, those neural pathways I’ve forged are just not firing correctly. The brain or the hands are out to lunch, and perhaps they went together. The experience is sometimes unpredictable. Other times it happens because my mind is preoccupied by a life situation that’s bothering me, and I just can’t get my head together. I try to play, but everything comes out wrong. It’s like my musical skills have gone on strike. After a half-hour or so of failing to improve the situation, I hang up practicing for the day. It’s detrimental to drill mistakes.
This doesn’t happen often, and thankfully it has never happened to me on a performance or audition day. But it happens.
If it did happen on performance or audition day, the results would not be good. I’d lose a potential job, I’d be terribly embarrassed, I’d likely make an ensemble angry if I ruined their performance, I might even lose a job I had.
I might lose face, but I wouldn’t lose my life. I would not end up seriously injured or paralyzed.
I imagine this disconnection between mind and body, the neural pathways misfiring, is a factor in what Simone Biles is facing right now. It’s more than just performance anxiety. She has plenty of reason for that mental space to be disturbed. Perhaps it is the weight of expectations; perhaps all the turmoil regarding Larry Nasser got in her head. This is the first Olympics since all that hit the news.
But the reasons don’t matter.
If the neural pathways are misfiring, that puts her in great danger if she were to continue to try to force her body to do the incredibly difficult gymnastic feats she is known for.
Anyone who says she has failed as a gymnast is simply wrong. Never mind all the medals she has won which have proved her excellence, her experience is what tells her not to compete right now. I am sure she has faced these moments of disconnect before, in practice, when she knew things weren’t working and it was better to cease for the day before she incurred an injury. She has to already be a great gymnast with years of practice to be able to recognize an off day. She is not failing her team. She knew that if she went out there not being her best, a disastrous mistake would cause her team to lose more points than if she bowed out and let someone who was at 100% take her place. She is not selfish, as bowing out gives room for others to shine. She is not giving into fear. She is submitting to wisdom and setting aside her pride, refusing to try to “prove” herself (needlessly, I might add) while knowing the amount of misunderstanding and criticism she would face.
How many people have a “bad day at work”, making a serious mistake costing their company a lot of time and money, despite ten years of experience? Yet they don’t depend on their bodies functioning at superhuman levels to do their job. How many people expect Simone Biles to perform like a machine but have more grace for their computer crashing?
I suppose the best way to explain the disconnect between mind and body is to say it is an issue of “mental health.” Those of us who depend on our bodies to function correctly in order to do our jobs know that these times when the neural pathways misfire happen. It’s terrible when it takes place at the most inopportune time: performance. But, in Simone Biles case, it is just plain too dangerous to attempt to forge ahead.
I, too, am disappointed that I won’t get to watch her flip and twirl, executing her amazing feats. However, I am more happy to watch her future career develop, whatever she does, than to speak of her in tragic terms.
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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.
1 thought on “A Musician’s Thoughts on Simone Biles’ Withdrawal from Olympic Competition”
The minute i heard “twisties” I thought of John Kennedy and the airplane crash— being disoriented so one does not know up or down. I am glad she said not this olympics because zi know i will see her perform again some day.