Thank you, Simone Biles!

We already were impressed by Simone Biles.  She’d overcome so much adversity in her life and yet her spark, spirit, hard work, talent, and skill shone bright in her gymnastics competitions.  Watching her star rise was a wonder and an honor to behold.  Then came the Tokyo Olympics and, to the shock of fans around the globe, Miss Biles pulled out of her competitions to take care of herself and preserve the opportunities of her teammates.   With the entire World watching, Miss Biles dared to put her well-being in front of the pressures and expectations of everyone around her.  Then, head held high, she continued to show up for her teammates to bolster their spirits and cheer them on.  What a role model!  And do I ever intend to use the example she’s set with my clients!

Living in the mostly affluent Bay Area, most of my clients feel pressure to perform. I see this particularly in my high achieving high school clients.  Somehow the rule of thumb in my community is that a child must excel academically while holding down a job or volunteer opportunity and being involved in sports or the arts.  It also helps if they can single handedly find a small country to save from poverty.  Some of this is driven, of course, by parents who say this is the only way to be accepted into a “good” college.  Some of this is driven by the high schools that hold their students to higher standards to ensure their record of students’ being accepted into Ivy League institutions.  Eventually, and sometimes without overt pressure from parents or schools, a high achieving student will simply internalize this thinking and insist on taking four honors classes or AP classes while also juggling several days of sports practice (I include dance in this category) or other extracurriculars, homework, work and home commitments, and a social life.

Adolescence is the time that self-consciousness develops which, for many teens, means they feel surveilled all the time.  The peer group takes precedence in a teen’s life and they feel the need to keep up with their friends, with the expectations of their family, school, and environment, and with their own internalized view of what they should be doing.  Like George Jetson, they struggle to keep up with the increasing pace of the treadmill they stepped on and they can’t seem to figure out how to get themselves “off this crazy thing!” They aren’t even aware that getting off that treadmill is an option.  The grueling pace is commonly thought of as the only way to achieve the goal of attending the best possible school and of outshining their competitors in college acceptance.

Mostly what I treat in teens is anxiety.  And most of that anxiety is centered around academic performance and creating a good college resume as if without a 4.8GPA and being voted MVP in one’s 6 day/week sport a high schooler’s validity as a college candidate is null and void.  In a teen’s perspective their future is at stake and the world is watching.  Finding the stop button on that trampoline feels impossible and many of the teens in my practice suffer negative physical and mental consequences to their commitment to staying on the machine at full speed.  Setting boundaries that allow many teens to have some down time, some family time or self care opportunities is a way of thinking that many high achieving teens feel they can’t afford until  they become ill from the stress they put themselves under.

Miss Biles’ actions set a new example for overachievers everywhere.  Despite the unbelievable pressure she was under and the eyes of the world upon her, she took an exit ramp off the fast track to care for herself.  The world didn’t end.  In fact, her actions gave others an opportunity to shine and when they did, she was right there celebrating with them.  Her career didn’t end.  Her life will continue to be what she makes of it in the gymnasium and out of it.  She will continue to have wonderful opportunities in life. She is still Simone Biles and loved by many for who she is and not just for her accomplishments as an athlete.  One’s achievements are a very narrow window to self-value and Miss Biles showed the world that there’s more to life than the competition or the win.

Working with my high achievers, and especially teens, I find they need a bit of guidance around their expectations of themselves.  They also need roadmaps to help them figure out their best ways to create a life they enjoy and they need permission to take a different route than they anticipated taking if their current one is having a negative impact on their mental health.  They need stress management and they need flexibility in their thinking.

There are several things I recommend to my clients to help mitigate their stress.  Here are a few:

  1.  Exercise. I’m a huge advocate of this.  Exercise gets our blood moving and our endorphins flowing.  Ours is a fairly sedentary society and moving our bodies around can help us feel like we are ready to tackle anything!
  2. Carve out self-care time.  I actually include exercise in this category but self-care includes so much more.  I recommend to my clients that they engage in calming and enjoyable activities such as reading, meditating, pursuing hobbies, or taking a nap or a bubble bath.  From what I’ve seen in 30 years of clinical practice, self-care is the first thing to go out the window under stress because it feels like an unaffordable luxury.  In my experience, however, even 10 minutes of meditation or breathing exercises can help with re-centering and focus.
  3. Breathe.  Focusing on the breath is very grounding and I go over several techniques with my clients including 4/7/8 breathing which has been proven to calm the amygdala (which hypes us up so we can run from or fight a threat) and bring on the parasympathetic nervous system to help calm us.  The formula is simple:  inhale for a count of 4; hold your breath for a count of 7; exhale through the mouth for the count of 8.  The main goal here is to exhale for longer than you inhale.  Conversely, inhaling for longer and exhaling for a shorter amount of time can help to wake you up a bit.
  4. Set reasonable goals. This is especially tricky for high achieving teens who have trouble thinking through what it actually looks like day-to-day to manage homework for 4 AP classes and 3 other classes.  It’s helpful to consider what time management looks like step by step and to go over this with your child.  I recommend t0 my high school aged clients that they ask their peers one grade above theirs how the homework load is for each class they are considering so that they have some idea.  We then map out what a typical week looks like so they can get some perspective.  Lastly, I encourage them to consider how they would add in family, social, and down time and whether they feel this is a manageable load for them.  I also give them permission to pare down their load so that they can prioritize a more well-rounded life.
  5. Create a plan in advance.  Or, as I put it recently to one young client, what’s your exit strategy if things are too much?  At what point can you drop a class?  Are you willing to put in less time on a class and get a lower grade in order to make your stress more manageable? Can you give yourself permission to let go of an extracurricular altogether if things become more than you can manage?  If not, can you give yourself permission to skip a day of practice or class if you’re anxious about your homework load or an upcoming test?  Can you use Miss Biles’s example and think outside the box of your own expectations in order to put yourself on firmer footing?  Again, teens aren’t the greatest at anticipating the future so having these discussions with them in advance so that they have an established plan for their stress management is really important and helps them to feel like it’s ok to step back if things feel too intense and they start to feel out of control.

While I’m not condoning giving up or quitting, I am helping my clients anticipate that they may have more trouble with their plan than they expect and I’m encouraging them to think less rigidly about having to do it all and do it all perfectly.  I’m sure Simone Biles didn’t expect to veer from her path of competing in the 2020 Olympics.  Nevertheless, she did what she needed to do for herself.  My hope is that the high achieving teens and young adults in the world sit up and take notice that the world and Simone Biles are doing just fine, thank you very much.  And that there were no catastrophic consequences to Miss Biles putting herself first.  In the world of competition sports (or academics!) this is truly outside the box thinking.  This is such an important lesson in life and one Miss Biles taught to perfection.  Well done, Miss Biles.  And thank you.

About Margaret Perlstein, MFT

Margaret has been a licensed therapist in private practice since 1992. In this high tech world we live in now, Margaret’s heart and focus are in the connections she creates with clients, face to face. She specializes in work with teenagers struggling with the stressors unique to their age group in these times, adults trying to turn the tables on debilitating anxiety or depression, couples striving to improve their communication and strengthen their marriage, or people grieving the loss of loved ones.

Working together with her clients, they search for the right path for their individual needs and ways to help them heal from their particular hurts. When it’s the right thing for them, they may bring in other important figures in their lives in order to enhance those relationships and develop a more robust support system outside the therapy room.

At all times, the goal is to guide clients toward a happier, more balanced way of living in the world and in their connections to others while also increasing resiliency to the bumps and bruises of life. Learn more or schedule an appointment with Margaret at