By: Gila Linzer  | 

What Simone Biles Taught Us About Hard Work

Despite a rising population of eligible workers, American worker productivity rates have been crawling with an average increase of less than 1% in recent years. This begs the question: Have Americans gotten lazier or have they shifted their values? Perhaps Americans have come to place more emphasis on their own self-care than on working and achieving as much as they could. Considering that twenty percent of Americans dealt with mental illness in 2019, it seems that a decrease in productivity might be necessary to allow people to treat their mental illnesses appropriately. A 2013 study found that working longer hours increased future risk of depression.

On July 28 this past summer, Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic-gold gymnast, withdrew from the finals of the Tokyo Olympics individual all-around competition. Over the following days, she also withdrew from the vault, uneven bars, and floor competitions. The news sent shockwaves across the world, as Biles, a woman deemed the best female gymnast in Olympic history, had been slated to win gold again. What stunned people most was her reason: mental health. While an athlete has never dropped out for mental health reasons, it is well known that Olympic coaches and even fans place immense pressure on Olympians to break records in their respective sports. So should this news even be so shocking? During the preliminary games, Biles wrote on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times … The Olympics is no joke.”

Biles’ decision is impressive because it defied the athletic world’s obsession with perfectionism. Instead, Biles helped balance this obsession by highlighting the importance of mental health and physical well-being. While other Olympians have also spoken out about their mental health issues, including Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, this is the first time an athlete has actually withdrawn from an Olympic event because of it. By opting out, Biles set a precedent for young rising athletes who are struggling with mental health. Biles’ decision is an incredible example that can help women regain empowerment in the sport. Biles demonstrates to women that they can make individual decisions that are best for their own body and health and not to give in to societal pressures that force them beyond their comfort zones. 

Some might interpret Biles’ quitting as a sign of weakness, but I think Biles displayed dignity and tenacity by choosing to forgo a medal in favor of her mental health. 

That being said, I worry that some may be taking her message of prioritizing self-care a little too far. Biles’ decision was eagerly embraced, and people were quick to extend her message to their own lives, using it to justify their lack of motivation and achievement. 

Thus, we should not take away from Biles’ act that we don’t need to strive for success. To get to the Olympics, Biles underwent years of intense practice and training. She perfected her craft and challenged herself to reach greater levels of difficulty than any previous female gymnast. But after all her hard work, Biles realized winning a medal is only one measure of success, and it was not the measure that mattered to her most. She realized that working hard does not mean proving to others that you are a winner. 

A strong work ethic is a Torah value as well.  Ben He He says in Pirkei Avot 5:23: “According to the labor is the reward.” We cannot expect fruitful results without putting in a solid effort in all aspects of life. 

Biles’ career is a great example of the well-known principle that hard work and determination are vital elements of achieving success. Most importantly, she is a paradigm for what it means to be self-motivated instead of simply working to please others. Yet, by being aware of her own limits and opting out when she felt it was necessary, she is able to embody a more healthy and realistic model of what it means to “work hard.”

Photo Caption: Simone Biles at 2020 Summer Olympics

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons