From stress to distress: Virginia Tech professor on the expectations on Simone Biles to win

Mental health experts are taking a closer look at the reasons why U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s team final at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo over stress. A Virginia Tech professor weighs in.

“We have a culture now that might make this more common,” psychology professor Dr. Scott Geller told WTOP.

Geller said it’s possible that expectations on Biles to win evolved from stress that is typically used to motivate an athlete.

“If our cognitive appraisal says ‘I’m not in control,’ now we have distress,” Geller said. “That’s debilitating and hurtful both psychologically and physically.”

Geller also wonders if this is something that has bothered Biles well before this summer.

“Perhaps she [Biles] had that [stress] for a while, and that hurts your ability to do your very best,” Geller said.

Following her withdraw, Biles told reporters that she was “dealing with a few things.”

She offered more details on what factored into her decision.

Geller also theorized that Biles may not be feeling appreciated and that there’s also added pressure for her.

“Our current culture in the United States, as sad as it is, could really be influencing athletes of color right now,” Geller said.

Geller thinks one way to combat such stress depends on others putting themselves in an athlete’s shoes, showing empathy and simply reaching out to offer support.

“When people reach out and help others, they feel better,” Geller said. “We’re talking about human welfare. So, if we could simply realize to reach out and thank someone,  show gratitude, that is a key to happiness.”

WTOP’s Lauren Hamilton contributed to this story.

Ken Duffy

Ken Duffy is a reporter and anchor at WTOP with more than 20 years of experience. He has reported from major events like the 2016 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, 2016 Election Night at Trump Headquarters in Midtown Manhattan and the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami.

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