Humble Pie

Simone Biles has to learn something about Hebrews 1:3, too.

Simone Biles, losing her control over a most basic, automatic trait for gymnasts, is a telling metaphor for an important truth: we should be humble because we are aware that all things are held together by the Creator, and nothing comes from our own power, might, or effort.

Simone Biles, four times a gold medalist at the Rio Olympics (with a bronze as well), five-time World all-around champion, seven-time US national all around champion, and the gymnast with the most World medals (25) and World golds (9) of any gymnast, male or female, on the planet, cited mental health issues as the reason for her shocking decision to remove herself from the team competition (which the US has not lost at a Worlds or Olympics since a silver medal finish in 2010), and the all-around competition (which she was a heavy favorite).

Perhaps you’re abreast on all things Olympics – following NBC’s ‘illustrious’ coverage, breaking down results, and scanning every major Twitter thread on Tokyo. Or, maybe this is all new to you. Maybe the concept of “mental health” is new to you, too. Or, maybe mental health is a very serious topic, is not altogether new to you, but the recent barrage of the term everywhere you look – from sports to students – has led you to softly and secretly conclude these citations as the primary culprit for a myriad of actions and decisions is potentially disingenuous. 

Personally, I’m going to avoid a firm stance on those issues, but I have been tracking with Twitter, NBC, and all major news outlets to garner more information on this story, and a different scent has caught my skieologian nostrils: humble pie. 

Let me be clear about the point of this column: This is not me bashing Simone for exiting the team competition.

I’m not someone who feels she deserves to be railed for this. Just the opposite.

I found her move, and the grace she carried through all of the ensuing press interactions, to be honorable. I would readily praise Simone for her decision, but also, if given the opportunity, remind her of a more salient lesson to be grasped from this entire ordeal: this is what humble pie looks, feels, and tastes like. My reason for writing this goes beyond a thesis I’m seeing across other publications – her action being lauded as a demonstration that even the Greatest of All Time is only human (a claim I believe is also true and stands a worthy reminder) – and to a more important, meaningful one:

This essay is a warning to young athletes to remember the importance of being humble, and a defense for why we all ought to have a humble disposition, no matter how excellent we are at a particular craft.

First of all, I will say this right away: 1) I’m a fan of US gymnastics (just as much as you are….which is to say, I care about it approximately every four years, fall in love with whatever darling NBC decides to promote, and then forget about it until the next Olympics. The lone exception being Shawn Johnson, whom I uniquely idolized by way of an 8-foot long “Got Milk” poster, a graduation present bestowed upon me from cafeteria ladies who were mesmerized by a four-year career of consuming massive quantities of food and adored my original raps about cheeseburger macaroni, performed quarterly on the morning announcements), which hung in my college house).  2) I’m a fan of Simone Biles, and 3) I’d love to see her and the US team succeed. 

Having said that, you can rest your keyboard and spare me any vitriol about how I “wouldn’t write such an article in regards to a story on a white-male athlete” (have you read my piece on Bulshonov?). If you finish this and that is honestly the first thought which entered your brain, you missed the point. You should stop, refresh my page so I get an extra “click,” and reread the article. 

If you are about to say, “Well, you just can’t comprehend the level of pressure Simone Biles is under; she is, after all, the “GOAT,” and this is, after all, the Olympics,” then you might want to hang around. This is more what I’m going to pick at. 

With the aforementioned accolades, one can rationalize Biles’ self-proclaimed “GOAT” (that’s “greatest of all time” for those of us who need a refresher) status. Actually, it doesn’t take much background leg work in the research department to conclude this remarkable American is truly the greatest gymnast – and arguably, Olympian – of all time. And, just in case you missed this, Twitter reminded us….and….

So did Simone herself. 

A rhinestone goat emblazoned on her leotard. 

A goat in her twitter profile.

She even has several moves which have been named after her. (Ok….there is ‘the Klaebo’ in cross country skiing, so maybe I need to retract this whole piece).

Heading into the Olympics, the limelight was placed on Biles, and that isn’t her fault. In fact, I’m all for the limelight being placed on an athlete – I wish guys like Tim Tebow got a little more of it, but it’s fine. If it were cast on me, I wouldn’t complain….more of a platform, right? Where I will assign responsibility, however, is how she handled it.

To be frank, Biles has not demonstrated humility. Calling yourself the GOAT, printing the title on your leotard, and relishing in articles, features, interviews, and profiles which hail you as the GOAT, is not humble. It is, however, a great, authentic, old-fashioned recipe for humble pie. It’s left me nearly feeling as though I’m watching a far-fetched movie plot, brimming with a strange element of divine providence enveloping our main character/heroine unfold as she wades through this traumatic ordeal at the Olympics. The GOAT, bowing out because there is too much pressure? Is this really happening? A few brave souls championed an ‘anti-Simone’ stance by dreaming up and shooting down a proposterous ‘what-if’ – “Can you imagine if Tom Brady walked into the huddle at the Super Bowl and told his guys, ‘hey, you know, overtime at the Super Bowl is just a little too much for me. You guys will be ok with back-up QB. Just do what you’ve been training your whole lives to do.”

Harsh. Again, I would never wish this on her or anyone else, but I will readily point it out to make a point: Always remember that any blessing is from above. Any gift or success, talent or accolade, that you’ve been bestowed with is just that – a gracious gift. It isn’t something you chiseled out yourself. if you think you’re the one in control of things, think again. Upon further understanding of Simone’s mental issues, I came to the realization that her situation paints a particularly poignant metaphor for this concept. 

She is struggling with a strange case of the gymnast version of golf’s “yips.” Termed the “twisties,” it is when a gymnast loses their perception of their position in the air. If you have ever watched Markelle Fultz, a former #1 overall draft pick, shoot a basketball…..er…try to shoot a basketball (there is a weird ‘hitch’ in his release, not unlike Charles Barkley’s golf swing, and its roots have been traced back to mental origins) you can better frame the concept. I think Simone would probably agree the ‘twisties’ are not the foundational mental issue. It is better described as a detrimental consequence of deeper mental anxiety – pressures of expectations, compounding physical and emotional stresses, social media, etc. The public not only can’t comprehend the stage of the Olympics, they don’t even usually begin to consider the various physical and emotional stresses from travel, logistics, and everything else that comes with such a massive event. Her demonstration of athletic prowess in saving an uncharacteristic vault is a testament to her athleticism, and also a manifestation of these larger mental issues.

Furthermore, Biles, along with other athletes in her generation, are firmly entrenched and entangled by the social media world which has allowed a ready and hungry public to simply devour the bounty of personal and private information laid bare before them. It is not a stretch to conclude we will see a great increase in mental health issues with this generation of young people absorbed and baked into the fabric of false digital reality – the new way of “keeping up with the Joneses.” 

Journalists, Twitter, former and current athletes: you are right in saying that we can’t begin to conceive of the immensity of the pressures felt by these athletes. But you know what we all can relate to? The prideful, unwarranted belief in our abilities – a sense of feeling like ‘I got this. I’m the commander of my ship. I know what I’m doing – and I’m good at it.’

We think it is by our hard work, our diligent study, our smart training, our great life choices – you name it – that has led to what we reap each day. Here is the cold reality: the law of retribution is not absolute. Sometimes, lazy people get rich, and sometimes smart people get sick, and sometimes people who train to automatize a mechanical, muscular movement patter for six hours a day, unexplainably lose control of their most basic awareness. When your car hits a patch of ice on the interstate, but you survive, you realize just how little control you have over everything. When you make all of the right financial calls but then your wife gets cancer and the hospital bills destroy you, you become aware of just how helpless you are. And when you witness the greatest Olympic athlete of all time succumb to the most human, relatable, and basic villain – the pressure – it reminds us that we are just the creatures, and not the Creator.

Let this be a lesson to all of you out there: you are not the ultimate commander of your ship. Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:17 clearly state that in Christ all things are upheld and sustained. It is by the power of His Word that all things are held together. 

Doug Wilson illustrated divine providence in a helpful way on a podcast I heard recently. God “holding all things together,” is like the engine of the car. You typically don’t notice much and aren’t aware of all of the aspects. Those moments where we are shaken by the reality of our helpless state of our creatureliness – or where we actively sense God intervening (a “God” moment) is akin to God taking us to the front of the car, propping open the hood, and showing us what is and always has been going on. I think this could be one of those moments for Biles. The realization that, at the end of the day, you aren’t even the master controller of a skill you’ve trained in your body for 6-8 hours a day for the last 17 years – so that it is automatic – demonstrates this reality to me, as an athlete and trained musician, with such purity. Truth is, at the end of the day, not a single cell in any muscle of any of the 7 billion bodies on this earth does its job outside of the authority of Christ. My typing of this article could cease – I could lose all ability to type (wouldn’t you be thrilled!) – in a moment, were it not for Christ holding all things together. Sure, I don’t ‘feel’ that way – but I’m not always privy to a propped open hood, either. 

Your routine, the movement patterns, the muscle contractions – they can be automatic. You can feel as if you are the one in control of your destiny. You can even be the GOAT. One thing GOAT’s seem to often end up eating: humble pie.

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