Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from a series of Olympics competitions last month to care for her mental health was surprising and transformative. The move, especially by an Olympic athlete who is considered one of the greatest the world has ever seen, was more influential and inspiring than any athletic feat thus far.
The gymnast’s withdrawal from the competition emphasizes the importance of holistic self-care and should inspire us to think about how we can practice taking care of our own selves and supporting those around us — our children, our colleagues, and our family members — to do the same. When we’re feeling unwell, it’s hard to be the best version of ourselves. The “twisties” can take many different forms and the connection between mental health, social and emotional wellness, and performance is real. (Biles, after not participating in the vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, as well as the all-around event, later re-entered the competition and won a Bronze medal on the balance beam.)
By withdrawing, Simone Biles has shown courage and vulnerability. She has prioritized her own well-being over the fame and glory of being crowned Olympic champion. Coming off of Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open in May for similar reasons, there’s an opportunity to follow these athletes’ leads to prioritize their own well-being as inspiration for your students to do the same.
Here are four ways we can encourage students to follow Biles’ and Osaka’s leadership and cultivate the skills in themselves that will strengthen their own social and emotional wellness.
Invite students to write out an expectation that is weighing on them from their family, school, or society. Then have them come up with a gentler expectation they choose to place on themselves.
Ask students to reflect on whether the expectation that is weighing on them came from themselves or from someone else. By thinking about how we can replace this external expectation with a kinder one, we’re being gentler on ourselves and the pressure we hold.
Generate ideas for self and community care. Students explore ways they can care for themselves and their community and how that might feel by expressing this through movement.
Students can do a movement to represent a self-care step they would like to take (like taking deep breaths) and a frozen statue in their bodies for how that self-care step makes them feel. Then, invite students to make a movement for a community care step they can take (like picking up trash at a park or speaking out about unfairness) and a frozen statue in their bodies for how that might make folks in their community feel. Debrief with students and reflect on what they can do to take care of themselves and their community.
Follow the Follower
Understand the importance of both leading and following. Invite students to form a circle and have them try to move their hands at the same time and in the same way as everyone else. Without speaking, the group should choose one student to be the leader and follow that student. The group then lets the leadership pass to a second person and follows the second leader. Last, have everyone be a leader.
Debrief with students and reflect on what it felt like to lead and to follow. Discuss how they can take the lead in their school and support someone today who is taking the lead.
The Leader Shop
Recognize when to step up and when to step back. Invite students to practice three energizing movements that could help them prepare to take a bigger role in a group, like jumping jacks or a Shake Off. Then have them practice three calming movements that could help them prepare to let others lead, like pressing their thumb and pointer fingers together in a triangle and breathing, or standing quietly in mountain pose.
Students then reflect on when they might need to step up versus step back while working or collaborating in a group. Discuss how we can make a space where everyone can be authentic and real, and in order to do this, we need to know when to step up and take a bigger role, and when to step back and let others take the lead.
Leveraging the celebrity appeal of the Olympics and Simone Biles and understanding her strong, inspiring decision can be an authentic way to explore and apply social-emotional wellness in the classroom. When we can process and reflect on our feelings and connect them to current events, we give students an opportunity to see social and emotional skills in real life application.
Photo: Simone Biles prepares to start her performance on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women’s apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Aug. 3. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)