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The ‘insurmountable’ weight of expectations on Simone Biles, other professional athletes

In a stunning moment at the Tokyo Olympics this morning, American athlete Simone Biles — considered the top gymnast in the world and favored to bring home gold medals — withdrew from the team competition. Her decision to prioritize her mental health came after her performance on the vault. John Yang discusses the pressure on Biles with Angie Fifer, a former gymnast and track and field athlete.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It was a stunning moment at the Tokyo Olympics today.

    Simone Biles, considered the top gymnast in the world and favored to bring the U.S. gold medals, withdrew from the team competition. Her decision came after her performance on the vault. And she said it was not because of a physical injury.

    John Yang looks at the pressure on Biles and how she discussed her own mental health.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, at the Tokyo Games, Biles seemed disappointed as she spoke to reporters and explained her decision.

  • Simone Biles, U.S. Olympic Gymnast:

    Today has been really stressful. We had a workout this morning. It went OK.

    And then just that five-and-a-half-hour wait or something, I was just like shaking, could barely nap. I have just never felt like this going into a competition before.

    And I tried to go out here and have fun. And warmup in the back went a little bit better. But then, 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.

  • John Yang:

    Before the event, in an Instagram post, Biles talked about the pressure she'd been feeling at the Olympics: "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but, damn, sometimes it's hard."

    Angie Fifer is a former gymnast and track and field athlete who now owns Breakthrough Performance Consulting, which works with individual athletes, executives, and teams.

    Angie Fifer, thanks so much for being with us.

    Help the rest of us understand what the pressures are like for someone like Simone Biles, who performs so consistently at such a high standard, and has all these expectations, and has had all of these expectations placed on her for years now.

  • Angie Fifer, Owner, Breakthrough Performance Consulting:

    So, the weight of pressure that Simone has on her shoulders is insurmountable.

    And the way to think about it is, imagine if you went to the office and everybody watched every move you made and made sure that every single thing that you did all day long was perfect.

    And that's the pressure they felt coming into these Games. And I think we could see a little bit of that through the earlier competitions this year, and then we have definitely seen it in Tokyo.

  • John Yang:

    Do fans and people who follow these sports expect too much of athletes?

  • Angie Fifer:

    I think yes.

    Simone is an incredible gymnast. She performs at such a high level, with so much difficulty and incredible execution. But to expect that she is perfect every time is asking too much of anyone. That's not human, to be perfect every time. And the mistakes that she made during the Olympics so far, she took steps. And the media came crashing down on her for USA struggles.

    That really was an unfair description of her performance.

  • John Yang:

    And so much of this, Angie, is the media looking for a story line, looking for an individual that they can highlight and follow through the competition.

    Do you think, in the — that that is more of a negative than a plus?

  • Angie Fifer:

    Honestly, I have been really disappointed about the overcriticism that the media has done on the Team USA women's gymnastics.

    They focus solely on mistakes. They were very critical about their qualification round, in which they came in second, doing the job that they needed to do just to get to that next day at the day of the finals. And they focus only on mistakes.

    Simone qualified first coming into this competition in the whole world. And all that the media showed were extra steps that she took or mistakes that she made. And the rest of the girls, they didn't even mention their names. This is a team event. And Team USA gymnastics has done a phenomenal job. And it would have been nice to see them call out the greatness, instead of mistakes.

    This is a sport that is incredibly dangerous. And if she were to have powered through today, there's no telling what could have happened. I think she made a very mature and courageous decision today.

    And when she talked about her decision, she talked about it not being fair to the rest of the team, for her to go out there and potentially lose them the medal.

  • John Yang:

    Losing the mental focus should also — could also endanger her physically. She could make a misstep.

  • Angie Fifer:


  • John Yang:

    Only Simone Biles really knows what's going on inside her head.

    But we do know her background, difficult childhood, survivor of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, being a role model, one of the few black stars in a predominantly white sport.

    Can these pressures also carry over into performance?

  • Angie Fifer:

    Trauma is cumulative.

    And as all of those things that you Simone has been through, with her background, the sexual assault she suffered from Larry Nassar, that doesn't just go away. And she deals with that trauma on a daily basis. And then the pressure to be perfect alongside of that has to be a tremendous cross to bear.

  • John Yang:

    She said she's going to be thinking about in the next — she has a day off. She's going to be thinking about whether to continue to compete.

    As she thinks through this, as a performance coach yourself, as a former competitor, what sorts of things would you want her to be thinking about?

  • Angie Fifer:

    I want her to be prioritizing herself.

    So, number one is getting in some relaxation and mindfulness time, so letting her mind just clear, and stopping all the overthinking and the overanalyzing. Probably stay away from social media and the news, because a lot of the commentary has been about solely on her and solely focused on all of her mistakes, instead of focusing on how great that she's done so far.

    And so I think those are two really big prioritizations, and then for her to really just kind of go back to her routines and think about what she could do, what she wants to do in order to perform Thursday and beyond. But that really is going to be up to her.

  • John Yang:

    Angie Fifer of Breakthrough Performance Consulting, thank you very much.

  • Angie Fifer:

    You're welcome.

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