Approaching the Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles was expected to outshine everyone with her gymnastics prowess, as she had consistently done for years. Instead, she stunned everyone for a different reason: she prioritized and advocated for herself and her health. In making the difficult choice to withdraw from much of the competition, she set a shining example for prioritizing mental health, an example applicable to attorneys and athletes.
The Greatest of All Time
Biles has repeatedly proven herself a champion and the greatest of all time (GOAT). She is so excellent and revolutionary that four moves on three apparatuses bear her name. Despite being 24, Biles has endured tremendous pressure and worked unimaginably hard for much of her life. In January 2018, Biles confirmed that she, like many of her colleagues, was sexually assaulted by USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar.
Persevering despite the trauma, she won her seventh national all-around title in June 2021 and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. In Tokyo, Biles helped the United States qualify in the team finals. She individually qualified for the all-around final and each of the individual event finals—the only competitor to do so. However, in the middle of the team competition, Biles unexpectedly withdrew, citing mental health.
Withdrawal Receives Mixed Reactions
Her withdrawal received mixed reactions. She received criticism from pundits and internet commenters, but she also received widespread public support from fans, other athletes, and celebrities. New York Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said Biles set a “huge example,” calling her a role model and leader. Elite athletes such as Michael Phelps and Aly Raisman issued similarly supportive statements. Even Taylor Swift publicly praised Biles, tweeting, “I feel so lucky to have gotten to watch you all these years, but this week was a lesson in emotional intelligence and resilience. We all learned from you.”
A Lesson for Lawyers
Lawyers experience mental health concerns at staggering rates. Despite not competing for gold medals, daily, we experience high levels of stress, perfectionism, demanding clients and supervisors, student debt, overwhelming caseloads, secondary trauma, and high stakes. We constantly perform, whether it is for a client, a supervisor, or a full courtroom. Although the stage may look different, there are many similarities between what we experience and what Biles endured when she withdrew from competition.
Explaining her decision, Biles said: “I say put mental health first. Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport, and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So, it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are—rather than just battle through it.”
Hers is a lesson equally applicable to the practice of law. We cannot be effective advocates for others when we are not caring and advocating for our mental health. Mental health is health. Lawyers must learn from Biles’s example; we must treat mental health as seriously as physical health—seeking treatment and taking time to recover whether we have the flu or are experiencing burnout.
Although advocating for our mental health may be incredibly scary, stepping back to recharge and recalibrate allows us to care for ourselves and be more effective attorneys. We must keep in mind that, unlike Biles’s one-shot at the Olympics, our opportunities will still exist after asking for coverage or continuances to take the time we need. And we must always remember that if Simone Biles, the GOAT, can take herself out of the Olympics and remain a dominant force, so can we.
Lawyer Assistance Programs provide confidential services and support to judges, lawyers and law students who are facing substance use disorders or mental health issues. If you or someone you know is in need of assistance, contact your state or local LAP.