What Simone Biles can help us teach our kids how to look at mental health and strength

Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran, USA Today Sports

It took me more than 24 hours to realize that not everyone was proud of and in awe of Simone’s bravery to stand up for her mental health and safety at the Tokyo Olympics this week. Chalk it up to a positive example of “hanging out with people like you”—a feed full of mostly supportive, progressive, and empathetic women. So when I started seeing posts about “all the haters,” I was confused!

Last night, I asked my husband (a serial ESPN Radio guy in the car) what he was hearing from his circle and what he thought about Simone Biles pulling out of the team competition and the individual all-around.

“I don’t know.”

He said it was complex for him. As the father of a daughter, he would absolutely have wanted our daughter to pull out if she didn’t feel mentally focused and able to do what is expected of these athletes. But if it was himself or our sons… well, he felt differently. “I know that’s not fair,” he said, “but that’s how I feel.”

My husband is a good man, but he’s rooted in a lot of cultural norms of how men are supposed to behave, and since he’s been a part of my life and helped raise our daughter, I can see cracks in that bravado and his views shifting. But it’s slow. You can’t change ingrained beliefs overnight.

I noodled on his conflicted feelings and the comments I was now seeing and hearing from (mostly) men around the internet, and it reminded me of my job in customer marketing.

We use terms called “frontbook” and “backbook” to refer to our customers. A frontbook customer is basically a brand new customer. Someone who is new to your brand, the experience, and the culture of what we offer. A backbook customer has been around a while. They’re in a groove—may love us, may be apathetic, and even if we are offering the best upgrade imaginable to their product or service, they’ll never adopt it because they’re used to things as they are. It works for them.

These backbook customers are a lot like those resistant to change; the ones seeking out against Simone. I think this is the frustration so many of us feel today when we advocate for equality or simply for something to be different than it was in the past. Why won’t this person see reason? Why wouldn’t they want this better thing? How can they not see this is better for society?

Well, because we’ve all been raised a certain way. We all like what we like, and when you’re living in the status quo and things are relatively smooth for you, why would you want to mess that up? I see that. I can understand the apathy that exists in this population and why it takes subgroups to lead change. And why change is so often driven through younger generations—through our frontbook.

Before I even knew everyone wasn’t rallying behind Simone’s decision to put her health and safety ahead of our desire for a GOAT performance, I had my kids on the couch watching the coverage with me. I told them how brave Simone was for doing what she did and how much courage it must have taken to stand up for what she needed even though she knew it was going to disappoint the world. Could you imagine disappointing the world? No wonder she felt like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. We were literally all sitting there waiting to watch her perform for our enjoyment.

The one comment I had back to my husband when he said I don’t know was this: is the answer different when a gymnast pulls out of competition versus another sport? I thought about my athletic days in swimming and volleyball. A lack of mental focus could mean a bad performance, yes. But it wasn’t going to impact my safety. I wasn’t going to suddenly forget how to swim and drown in the pool. I may trip and sprain an ankle on the court, but I wasn’t going to paralyze myself. Look at that photo at the top of the page. There is actual risk involved in every move she does, and if she isn’t 100% focused on it, then she risks serious injury. Who are we to put our entertainment ahead of her safety?

We’re not likely to change the minds of grown men who believe in toughness at all costs, and I don’t hate these people for believing what they do. It’s hard to retrain your own brain even if you question a belief. So while my husband may be saying he isn’t sure how he feels about Simone Biles’ decision, he happily stands alongside me as an ally while I demonstrate openly for our family how we should react to Simone and how she is a pillar of strength and hope and courage—not weak or a quitter.

This next generation is going to be more compassionate than the last. The women of this world are going to make it so. And love and hope and empathy is the best gift we can pass along to them.

You can follow me and our family on Instagram @theothersideofmotherhood.

Published by Ashley Adams

Author, former single mom, lover of Cherry Coke Zero and Taylor Swift. Here to coach and support and love on women in challenging relationships.

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