Olympic moment shows leadership comes in different forms
What does leadership mean to you? How would you define it?
For most of us, it means taking charge and stepping up in times of need. Other times, we see it as simply keeping a group on the right track.
When it comes to sports, we tend to see it as fighting through pain or taking one for the team.
Broke your leg? Fight through it. Concussed? Shake out the cobwebs. Feeling nauseated? Suck it up.
That’s what comes to mind for a lot of us.
However, leadership can also come in the form of stepping down instead of stepping up. Seeing that fighting through pain, whether it be physical or mental, isn’t helping the team.
That’s what Simone Biles did earlier this week during the team gymnastics competition in the Tokyo Olympics.
Biles is by far the best gymnast in the world and considered by many to be the best of all time, male or female. She was expected to easily lead the U.S. women’s team to a gold medal as well as cruise to an all-around medal as an individual. However, as is sometimes the case at the Olympics, things don’t go according to plan.
Sometimes athletes get off to a bad start, whether they be swimmers, track stars or cyclists. It can cost you a gold medal or even keep you off the podium altogether.
Gymnastics is different, though. One bad move and you could get seriously injured, not just keep you from getting a medal.
On Tuesday morning, during the team vault competition, Biles was battling some mental issues, or “demons” as she called them, adding that she doesn’t trust herself as much as she used to.
During her attempt, she attempted to perform a 2 1/2-twist Yurchenko move, but only pulled off a 1 1/2-twist and took a big stumble on her landing. The judges gave her 13.766 points, which is far below her 15.183 in qualifying. She huddled with a trainer and then left the floor.
Jordan Chiles was subbed in for the uneven bars, but losing Biles really hurt the American’s chances to continue their team gold medal streak.
“I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat and work on my mindfulness,” she said in an interview. “I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job, and I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for my screw-ups because they worked way too hard for that.”
Biles then went from the team’s top gymnast to their most vocal supporter on the mat. Even though they were trailing the Russians — officially named the Russian Olympic Committee — by a lot, the Americans rallied with Biles rooting them on. The gap was ultimately too much to overcome, but they pulled off a silver medal, which is an impressive feat considering they lost their best gymnast.
In an interview with the BBC, Biles said she was “really happy with how everybody did” and that she was “so proud of them for stepping up especially in a last-minute situation.”
When you think about it, that’s leadership. Biles realized that she wasn’t mentally in the right place and instead of trying to battle through some overwhelming feelings, she decided not to.
If you’re rattled at the level she apparently was, where you start making uncharacteristic and potentially dangerous mistakes, you’re hurting your team. If Biles had stayed in the meet when she clearly was not at her best, she could’ve prevented her squad from even making the podium. Just imagine the guilt she’d have after that.
By dropping out, she gave her teammates a chance to rally and instead of staying in the locker room, she was right there on the floor supporting them. By stepping aside, she helped her team succeed and that’s what leadership can be.
Naturally, some people on social media were critical of Biles’ decision, saying she wasn’t tough enough or that she should’ve still competed regardless of the fact she was obviously not at the top of her game.
This is an ignorant way of thinking. Biles had an incredible load on her shoulders that most of us would never be able to carry. She’s the face of American gymnastics and one of the world’s most recognizable athletes. She’s even got four gymnastic moves named after her and is expected to perform at an incredibly high level every single time she competes.
Sure, she could’ve tried to keep going, but if you’re risking your physical and mental health as well as your team’s chances at an Olympic medal, is it really worth it?
Leadership can come in different forms. Sometimes, it’s taking charge and stepping forward when needed. Other times, it’s realizing the situation your team is in and seeing that you’re hurting more than helping. So you step back and support your teammates. Both are smart moves and more often than not, they result in success.
A true leader can notice what they need to do and make the right decision. That’s what Biles did and we could all learn something from that.
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.