by Hannah Gal
Friday, 30
July 2021
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07:15

What Simone Biles can learn from Jordan Peterson

The world's greatest gymnast chose chaos over order this week
by Hannah Gal
How tidy is her room though? (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

We watch the Olympics to see heroes at their flawless finest, don’t we? We want to see athletes pushed to the very edge of the human spirit, and triumph.

Competing gymnasts “put themselves right on the edge of chaos” explained Jordan Peterson once, when they perform “everyone in the room is so tense you could hear a pin drop”. The routine finishes. There is the triumphant gesture as everybody rises; they clap like mad — it grabs you right in the core of your being.” It’s an act of worship, concludes Peterson, “you saw someone go beyond their perfection into the domain of chaos and establish order, right in front of your eyes. You’re so thrilled about it that you’re happy to be alive.”

Simone Biles, considered by some to be the greatest gymnast of all time, has in one swoop tarnished this long and proud Olympic spirit. By quitting the Tokyo Olympics, she cast a shadow over the entire premise of the games.

Biles did not quit in tears following an unforeseen injury, or due to exhaustion after giving it her all — she quit because as she told the press: “I have to focus on my mental health.”

Biles left her team mates in the lurch, at one of the most pivotal moments of their lives, and let countless adoring fans down because as she put it “I wanted to take a step back, work on my mindfulness.”

The bottom line is, Biles lacked the resilience needed to face hardship head on, and failed to find the strength needed to overcome difficulty. Others, of course, saw it differently. “I believe Biles’s decision to forgo her chance at another medal in Tokyo” wrote Casey Gerald in the Guardian, “will stand as her greatest achievement of all.”

Gerald linked Biles choice to leave the games to the long struggle of black Americans to free themselves from slavery, and later to claim their civil rights. These are high rhetorical stakes. What bearing this history has on Biles can only be guessed at.

To me, it seems more likely that this is a case of self-centredness. Biles’ case is representative. We are witnessing a societal shift towards inwardness, what the novelist J.G. Ballard called “inner space” and Jordan Peterson describes as the “over-protection of the young.” Ballard was describing the rise of the expressive individual, who relied on therapies, pharmaceuticals, shopping, technology, and pornography rather than family, faith, and political organisation to deal with their problems.

In his work, Peterson details the way parents and educators shield children from hardship and difficulty, robbing them of the opportunity to build resilience. In Biles both of these themes, which are essentially modern, are symbolised — far more than the historic struggles of black Americans.

What is left — and this is now deemed unfair and even cruel to say — is weakness and narcissism. Empathy takes a backseat; Biles had little of that for her team mates, who pulled themselves together to collect silver medals.

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Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 year ago

The thing that leaves a bitter taste to this is that Biles, Osaka and the England penalty-takers who flubbed, are having praise heaped upon them for failure by ideological activist-‘journos’ who have no interest in sport. Those who don’t join in are denounced as ‘hateful’.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

I predict that going forward there will be a rush of mental health problems in sport. This is the way of the world right now.
Mental toughness is a vital requirement for elite sportsmen and women and that is simply not going to go away. I definitely have sympathy for people who experience mental health issues and they should have the right to withdraw, with some caveats:
Do not withdraw with conditions – I will take part but will not talk to the press, all the while knowing that media connects the athletes to the fans and ultimately the fans are the reason that elite athletes are paid a huge amount of money. The fans pay the athletes.
And I agree: pulling out and leaving your teammates in the lurch in the middle of the olympics is not on.

Scott Norman Rosenthal
Scott Norman Rosenthal
1 year ago

Being frightful, hesitant, confused, etc., are now faced with placing oneself in the hands of Behavioral Health.
Human frailty used to be tackled. Now it is exploited for cash.

ralph bell
ralph bell
1 year ago

In tennis singles it is the mental strength that is key when becoming a champion, after picking yourself up and raising your game after falling short on a point or game. Novak Djokovic is the master of this and Tsitipas and Nadal among many other have demonstrated this.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  ralph bell

I am reading Open, by Andre Agassi and mental strength is a key theme in the book. An excellent read by the way – a real page turner.

Sam
Sam
1 year ago

Not that I’ve read a lot, but this was my favorite autobiography I’ve ever imbibed. A tennis player who hates tennis, who’da guessed it

Angelique Todesco-Bond
Angelique Todesco-Bond
1 year ago
Reply to  ralph bell

I was also impressed with 18 year old Emma Raducanu at Wimbledon, she tried to punch through the panic attack, she got on court and really tried, she couldn’t do it, she was pulled out. She never tried to excuse herself or come up with the mental health card and she will come back better and stronger. I like my sporting heroes to have grit.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 year ago

I’m not sure this is a fair article. Biles has a well known condition in which she has lost her spacial awareness crucial for performing complex manoeuvres. I personally know a gymnast who is a quadriplegic as a result of messing up a move, so I personally think it was wise to pull out. A moment of glory isn’t worth a life in a wheelchair.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

I am inclined to agree with you. I do have certain reservations about “mental health issues” becoming a bit of a trendy go-to excuse – especially in sports where a display of mental toughness is part and parcel of the athlete’s performance and our admiration for them. However, after doing some reading about the “twisties”, I do think that Biles made the right decision. No gold medal is worth breaking your neck for and in gymnastics, that can happen so easily.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

If she has a well known condition that affects spacial awareness, why was she competing?

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 year ago

To my knowledge the condition comes in to play for a proportion of athletes at a time which is impossible to predict. I don’t know enough about it, but I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt rather than throw stones at her when I don’t know the full backstory. I find it difficult to believe that someone would pull out of something they’ve trained their whole life for without a good reason.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

“Proprioception” is the word you’re struggling for.
Biles’ issues may arise from having been fiddled with by a team physio even after becoming famous.
If someone with her status and clout didn’t feel she could speak out something is very badly amiss.

AL Tinkcombe
AL Tinkcombe
1 year ago

As a casual scanner of sports headlines, I was unaware of Biles’ medical condition. It provides a very different, and totally understandable, reason to cease competing. That said, timing is an issue. Biles could have retired when the condition was diagnosed and training or competition became dangerous beyond the ordinary risks of the sport. Did she think she could master it? If so, why not say so? Did the condition flare up in Tokyo? Why not say so? Why give “mental health” rather than spatial awareness as the explanation? My first thought was about Biles’ teammates: talk about having to pick yourself up and pull it together in the face of shock. The person who got cut from the squad also matters. Biles did say she was concerned about undercutting the team score by performing badly, so her awareness of the context shows. So much of the reporting of this has suggested that being the “greatest gymnast who ever lived” was too much pressure to bear. It’s hard not to be cynical about the “greatest ever” since another one will come along, in sport, in music, in any field. And being the “greatest” in athletics brings a pile of rewards which should, perhaps, entail some responsibility beyond responsibility to oneself. Biles was a superb gymnast who disappointed here. I appreciate this article at least raising some questions.

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago

It was the way she quit that grates. She should have conferred with her coach and team, then pulled out. An apologetic statement to her fans would have been appreciated, as well.

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
1 year ago

A few days ago Biles was recognised as the greatest gymnast ever. That didn’t come about for purely selfish reasons. She has given her body, her teenage years – and yes, probably mind – to her sport and her country.
As with any serious athlete, no doubt she thought she could control any nagging doubts about her mental strength, just as she has throughout her career. Clearly that wasn’t the case, which is why she has pulled out. End of.

Alan T
Alan T
1 year ago

The way this story is being reported is a whitewash.
It’s been known since 2016 that Biles has been taking the stimulant Ritalin (a banned substance for competitive athletes) for many years, since she was a child, as a treatment for ADHD. Ritalin is banned in Japan. It is not clear. from what I can see, whether a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) has been given her in order to allow her to continue taking the stimulant while competing in these games. If she hasn’t, and has tried to compete without her normal medication, it is hardly surprising she has pulled out. If she has…? Well, are there any actual journalists out there who want to find out? Or do they just want to use this story to churn out the usual empty platitudes about mental health.

William Hickey
William Hickey
1 year ago

We view with resigned humor hundreds of reporters and experts, who two weeks ago were raving about “black girl power,” now rush to provide invented illnesses never heard about before in gymnast commentary, plus passive-aggressive excuses that turn quitting into victory, for the sake of Simone Biles.

Proving once again that virtually all of domestic politics since 1965 is at root an attempt to deal with the unbearable — black failure.

Geoffrey Wilson
Geoffrey Wilson
1 year ago

Like the silly journalism she reasonably makes fun of, this article too brings in a famous name (Peterson) a little fatuously. Biles cannot be said to have been over-protected by family (trainers) – she won many medals by showing skill and guts under pressure. That record of success is part of glorious Olympic history, which is certainly not tarnished (as the author oddly alleges) by Biles making some silly statements now. She is not perfect, so what, nobody is – her record is wonderful, part of a glorious history.

Everett Maddox
Everett Maddox
1 year ago

I like this approach better than over thinking the event. Fame and expectation has brought many to a less than glorious end.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 year ago

With a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, Simone Biles has shown more than enough mental resilience in her time.
Whereas before people might have talked about “burnout” or the “weight of expectations,” now things dressed up in the language of mental health – a kind of pseudo-medical jargon. This is unfortunate, I think, and serves to obscure, rather than illuminate those parts of the human condition that are triggered by our responses to stressors – this has been addressed before by Louise Perry of this parish:
https://unherd.com/2020/09/there-is-no-student-mental-health-crisis/
Still, we shouldn’t let this linguistic inflation detract from Biles’s achievements; the same applies as well to Naomi Osaka.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
1 year ago

Have to wonder what that last gymnast who didn’t make the team thinks about this.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris Eaton

I think they’ll eventually break ranks – depends who’s sponsored by whom. The DM will have people on the case.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

I am not going to condemn this young lady for withdrawing from the games, the pressure must have got too much for her, I can sympathise with that, but it’s a pity her team did’nt pick up that something was wrong earlier, for everyone’s sake.
Simone has explained to the world as best she can what she thinks and feels has happened, using the fashionable language and ideas of our time. And then the powerful commentators and the media have expanded and inflated what she has said for political purposes. That’s not her fault.

Last edited 1 year ago by Claire D
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

Blame the team? I don’t think so… Mental instability is not always easy to pick up by outsiders. She should have pulled out before the games – she is an experienced athlete and knew what to expect and whether she could handle it.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

Did I “blame the team” ? That’s a bit strong I think for my expressing regret that none of her team mates or coaches noticed that something might be wrong. It also ignores the other points in my comment.
Perhaps my “let that be a lesson to them” is a bit harsh, I’ll edit that out.

Last edited 1 year ago by Claire D
Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
1 year ago

Hannah Gal makes some interesting and highly agreeable points about the general experience and attitudes of young people today but I feel like the Simone Biles situation has been shoe-horned in; as we do not know the details of Biles’ private life, isn’t the healthiest response as a viewer to be disappointed but to give her the benefit of the doubt? Could there not be an explanation hidden away that makes sense of it? It’s true that Casey Gerald has bizarrely twisted the narrative around civil rights and slavery, but is that so much more opportunistic than twisting it around ballardian narcissism? Athletes and sportmen/women/people have been choking under pressure for millennia. The greatest gymnast of all time, performing under pressures most of us can only imagine, had a bad day. Isn’t that enough?
Having said that, if this was all playing out like a J G Ballard novel . . . perhaps Biles has been swept up by some middle-class social justice anarchist warrior cult and her staged quitting was a mere distraction to deflect the attention of the world as semtex was injected into the pommel horse by one of her comrades . . .

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
1 year ago

It is not a big deal to me that she quit due to lack of resilience and toughness but it is a big deal, and deeply disturbing, that she is lauded for it.

Adrian Burrows
Adrian Burrows
1 year ago

I’m not sure I agree. I’ve never been an Olympic athelete, I’ve no idea the pressure that an elite athelete is under both physically and mentally. It would be foolish to assume that I know better then the athelete themself in the assessment of whether or not they should continue to compete. When it comes to mental health, shouting ‘oh, just pull yourself together and get on with it!’ is rarely the best course of action for anyone.

Last edited 1 year ago by Adrian Burrows
Charlie Glynn
Charlie Glynn
1 year ago

Seems a shame that Biles could not have anticipated her mental health issues and ceded her place on the team to a gymnast that might be more able to compete. Those who don’t know competition and sport don’t understand the willingness and courage to push through difficulties; hence the tendency to glorify the fragility (she’s human/not a machine). Those who do know, understand that this edge of control and emotion are always there in all athletes, regardless of how they appear.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago

The Guardian comments (‘this is her greatest achievement’ blablabla) are of course provocative nonsense, but, as many others have said, is it totally unfair to take that out on Simone Biles. She may have done herself no favours by putting it in ‘mental health’ terms, but surely we can cut her some slack for her choice of words. She is in the team because she performed up to her usually miraculous level, and everybody expected that to continue. She has run into some kind of block that leaves her unable to perform, and she has had to withdraw and try to get it together. Sad for her team, sad for her country and fans, but mostly, desperately, sad for herself. No point in showering blame and might-have-beens around.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rasmus Fogh
Antonino Ioviero
Antonino Ioviero
1 year ago
Tom Jennings
Tom Jennings
1 year ago

I would invite commenters to “google” “Simone Biles floor routine” and take a few minutes to watch her perform in the US Olympic Trials. I believe what she does is a marvel- a choreographed date with disaster from which she somehow emerges unscathed. If she had any break of belief or self confidence, she would be crazy to attempt her routine. This isn’t tennis.

Michael Hobson
Michael Hobson
1 year ago

Well. A London based woman journalist not writing sneeringly about Jordan Peterson. Didn’t she get the memo?

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 year ago

USA Podcaster Joe Rogan this week discussed the leak of Biles’ medical profile by Russian operatives, a t*t-for-tat move, that Biles takes drugs (ritalin, etc) to deal with her diagnosed ADHD and that the Japanese forbad the use of such drugs, the idea being that they act as amphetamines, while also allowing the user to be able to focus on tasks better, perhaps making competition ‘unfair’. People who take such drugs, many who started as children can have a terrible time suspending their usage. Supposedly, this is what Biles was confronting. Other than Rogan’s podcast, I have yet to see any other media pick up this angle, so who knows if it is in fact, true.
That said, when my kids were in middle-to-high school at a private school in NYC, it seemed that ADHD was diagnosed for any kid who was a little different, a little ‘out of line’. I am not a doctor, but it was rather stunning to hear from my kids about their friends advised ‘medicinal drug taking’. Knowing a number of these kids, it often seemed like overkill; Many of these kids either needed attention or a good boot-in-the-pants, a come-to-Jesus-moment, etc. I am guessing it was just easier to take them to a doctor to get medicated. Most recently, I was told of a friend’s son, a guy in his early 30’s now who’s been taking such ADHD drugs for years and as a result, experiences impotency. I wonder if parents, coaches, and other guardians understand the the long term implications?
I agree with the author of this article. To see an Olympic level athlete walk away from the ultimate ‘chaos’ test is disappointing to say the least. But I wonder if there are factors that we don’t fully understand yet?

Last edited 1 year ago by Cathy Carron
Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
1 year ago

I think the real issue is that Biles’ first reason for quitting was to resolve “so-called” mental issues, whatever they may be. And that is obviously pure bullshit. Had she been truthful from the get go and simply explained (as came out later on) that she had the “twisties” such that she could no longer orient her body in space relative to the ground during her her high-flying routines, one could easily understand why she quit. i.e. it would have been very dangerous given the routines she was performing (e.g. she could easily have landed on her head etc…). All of this could have been due to an ear infection or, for example, to loosening of some inner ear calcium crystals (which in older folk leads to temporary episodes of transient vertigo). So what really annoys me is the initial attribution to mental issues which simply gives the impression that she’s a quitter. At the highest levels, sport is all mental: that makes the difference between winning or loosing a tennis match or a tie breaker, between winning and loosing the Tour de France, and between winning and loosing in gymnastics. i.e. the difference between a winner and a loser is generally not their inherent ability but whether they choke or not at critical moments. But the “twisties” is not a choking issue – it’s a real physical issue and she should have said that right away.

George Glashan
George Glashan
1 year ago

“How tidy is her room though?”

brilliant caption, bravo

Aron T
Aron T
1 year ago

Let’s burst some bubbles here. The Olympics is not about heroics but about money—lots of money, just like every other major sports event worldwide. Athletes are part of a money making entertainment machine. Many, if not most young athletes are pushed by eager guardians seeking fame and fortune. Many of them are exploited and abused in many ways by this machine (including sexually as was Biles). Nothing has changed since the days of the Roman circus.
Of course it’s fun to watch these glad—athletes perform for us. Unlike Ancient Rome most don”t die and (like the ancient charioteers) the best manage to siphon off some of the money for themselves. Certainly a justified reward for their years of abuse and suffering.
The real narcissists are the fans who believe these athletes owe them something, and buy into the moral verbiage used as a red herring to keep our eyes off the ugly reality of this money machine. This is what the author of this article sounds like: “Simon Biles (and lots of her compatriots) was raped by her team doctor? Well she still owes us a great performance in the name of Olympic heroics and glory, now and forever Amen! How morally weak she is for not giving us the viewers what we want and deserve!”

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

This affair will surely change how sport is discussed in the media. No more talk of Steve Waugh’s tactic of “mental disintegration”; less emphasis on the mental aspects of titanic battles such as Hamilton v Rosberg, Hill v Schumacher. No more, “cracking under the pressure”, “bottling it”, skirting around the issue of avoiding taking a penalty in the shoot-out, etc. Or hopefully, not. I enjoy these things, knowing I would probably crumble.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jonathan Bagley
Scott Norman Rosenthal
Scott Norman Rosenthal
1 year ago

Brilliant and succinct.
The label years ago was “quitter”.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago

Fortunately, as of yet even the IOCC is not woke-mad enough to award a medal to Biles BECAUSE of her race and suffering! Although that would seem to be the direction of travel…..