Local gymnastics coach applauds decision by Simone Biles to put mental health struggles on the mat
Brian Le Roux believes there is a greater need for understanding into mental health issues and athlete wellbeing in gymnastics.
The subject was thrust into spotlight last week as Simone Biles, the United States’ most decorated and arguably most dominant gymnast of all time, shocked the sporting world by withdrawing from the team final at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, citing struggles with her mental health.
It later emerged that the four-times Olympic gold medal-winner and 19-times world champion has been suffering from an issue referred to as the “twisties”, a disconnect between the mind and body that causes an athlete to lose control of their body as they spin through the air.
Not only hampering Team USA’s chances of a gold medal, but, more importantly putting her own safety at risk, the 24-year-old took the bold decision at the time to withdraw from the other four individual finals she qualified for.
It was a decision, made under the glare of the biggest sporting stage of them all, that Le Roux, head coach of the Bermuda Gymnastics Association, is adamant Biles should be commended for.
“I can only applaud Simone for making that decision,” he said. “She must have been suffering for a while and it’s just become too much and too hard for her to cope. I think it was a well-thought-out decision and certainly not a spur-of-the-moment thing.
“During the Olympics you could see her visibly falling apart; things need to change to focus on the wellbeing of athletes. Some things are more important than winning medals.
“Right now in the sport, I feel as if in the wider community there is a lack of understanding about the all-round welfare of athletes.
“That starts with preparing young athletes for tough times and knowing the signs of when things are wrong.
“It feels like gymnasts are just expected to be a product of a process when really there's a lot more to it. People may not know Simone’s background, the pressure of being in the limelight from such a young age, how she deals with failure. All of those things can cause trauma and it can leave an effect that some may not have the tools to deal with it.
“Above all she’s thinking about her own wellbeing and she’s decided to make a stand on the biggest sporting stage of them all.
The pressure on her would have been immense and when things were going badly it would have been so rough on her; I just felt so sorry for her.“
While Le Roux has the utmost sympathy for Biles — who is reported to be in line to return today to defend her title in the balance beam final — he feels her actions will have a far more significant impact on gymnastics and the wider sporting world.
“The only real positive from this is that she has brought a greater awareness of mental health in gymnastics and sport to the world; that’s a huge thing I’m taking away from these Olympic Games,” added Le Roux, who has invited sports psychologists to speak to his gymnasts in the past about the importance of mental health awareness.
“To do that on the stage that she did sent out such a strong message. To do that on the world stage was so important and for her to be bold enough to do it was huge and sets a great example for other athletes.
“Being such a huge name in her sport makes her a great advocate for mental health and wellbeing. Even though it was devastating to watch, it is incredible that she has given a bigger awareness to the issues of mental health.
“Gymnastics is a lot different to other sports. You get one shot and then that could be it. It is so crucially important that young gymnasts and athletes in general are prepared mentally.
“I also have to applaud her coaches and all of the USA team staff who have stuck by her decision and supported Simone completely. That is vitally important to show others that there is support out there.”