The Core Message
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The Core Message

The Simone Biles Saga and the Importance of Framing

Simone Biles — some say the greatest gymnast in history — started quite the controversy by suddenly pulling out of the team finals and individual all-around competitions at the Tokyo Olympics.

The tidal waves of reaction came fast and hard. Some slammed her for being weak, being a quitter and an embarrassment. But just as quickly, others came to her defense.

Initially, I read some of the comments with nothing but spectator curiosity. But then I noticed something odd…

There was a big difference between the critics and the supporters in terms of how they “framed” the situation. They used radically different frames.

Let’s just browse through some of these.

Critics’ Frames

Here’s a Youtube influencer:

Think about what the media would have said if Tom Brady had not come out at halftime of a Super Bowl because the pressure had gotten too big for him. Think about what would have happened if Michael Jordan wouldn’t have shown up to one of his Game 7’s? Think about how the media would have reacted?

And here’s another one:

Simone Biles decided because she performed badly in some event, she’s just going to quit the Olympics…

In the past, when Olympic athletes have not just injured their feelings, but have injured their bodies, they’ve still gone on, they’ve still competed… to bring home those medals for the United States.

Compare those good ol’ days to Simone Biles today.

The “injuring their bodies” reference is to this:

A conservative media publisher on Tuesday posted a video of Kerri Strug’s gritty performance 25 years ago, when the legendary gymnast battled through a serious ankle injury to help the U.S. women’s team on its way to winning Olympic gold.

“The great ones find a way,” the publisher wrote on Twitter.

Then some public official followed up with a ding

“Contrast this with our selfish, childish national embarrassment, Simone Biles,” Aaron Reitz wrote in a tweet that quoted the original about Strug.

Got the point?

They think Simone Biles quit because the pressure had gotten too big, therefore she’s weak, because in the past, great athletes have persevered through hurt bodies, not just hurt feelings.

Ok, now we look at the supporters.

Supporters’ Frames

I’m just gonna lay out quotes from articles that praised her. For instance:

As an athletic matter, Biles had absolutely nothing to prove… Having won five medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics — four gold medals and one bronze — Biles’s only competition in Tokyo was herself.

And another:

Biles was one of more than 150 women and girls who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar, who in 2018 was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for carrying out that abuse while working as a doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics.

And:

That’s because she seemed to have the twisties, a frightening and dangerous phenomenon that helps explain why she bowed out of the team final and the all-around to focus on her mental well-being.

Hence the widespread support among athletes for her decision to take some time off: If she competes again too soon, the consequence could be much worse than missing a medal.

Three paragraphs, and already three different reasons.

  1. She has nothing to prove. She can do whatever she wants
  2. She was sexually abused
  3. She had a case of “twisties” and could’ve been seriously hurt.

Notice the many different frames?

For critics, she is a quitter because she couldn’t continue after “pressure and hurt feelings.” And in any event, the great ones in history would push through even physical injuries. It’s actually quite a focused argument: athletics is all about pushing through pressure and a degree of pain.

For supporters, however, the frames were many: she was justified in quitting because

  1. Mental health is really important and should be prioritized
  2. Physical injury could’ve happened
  3. She has nothing else to prove
  4. She was abused

What about Simone Biles’ own words? Did she use one frame, or many?

Simone’s many frames

Here, I’ll just paste the video below:

From a quick listen, here are all the potential “frames” I pulled out:

  • Injury: No injury [but] didn’t wanna do something silly out there and get injured.
  • Stress: Been really stressful — not having an audience, long week, long process, long year, just a lot of different variables. We’re just a little too stressed out
  • Having fun: We should be out here having fun but we are not
  • Risk losing: I didn’t want to risk a medal because of my screw-ups
  • Mental health first: Put mental health first. If you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy your sport

That’s FIVE different frames.

That’s an unfocused message if I ever saw one.

To be clear, I like Simone Biles and I really admire what she’s trying to fight for in these Olympics — for athletes’ wellbeing both mental and physical.

But this effort could’ve been better served with clearer messaging.

Problem with unfocused message

The problem with unfocused messaging are many fold, but here are a few.

1. People don’t know where you stand

What’s your actual argument? Is it among the following?

  • Are you saying you were preventing serious injury?
  • Are you saying if you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be competing at all?
  • Are you saying mental health is intimately linked with physical health?
  • Are you saying the ultimate goal is winning, so if your mind’s not in the right place you should let someone else go instead?

All of these are actually different arguments, and people from supporters to critics may not be clear which of these you’re actually arguing for.

2. Critics can simply latch onto the weakest argument

Knowing sports commentators, I haven’t seen anyone advocate for continuing the competition even at the risk of serious injury. Nobody wants to see athletes seriously hurt.

So if the argument had been: Simone Biles lost her sense of direction and balance, so the medical staff advised her to pull out, because if she competed she would risk severe injury. I can’t imagine even Biles haters arguing with this.

But since Biles mentioned so many other variables, critics could simply pick ones that made her look weak, like this part:

It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games, I think, just as a whole — not having an audience. There are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympic process. It’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables. And I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out.

I’m sorry, but this part is really, really muddled. She was making the argument that it’s been stressful, and she tried listing the specifics, but all she could muster was “different variables”. Twice.

That’s pretty vague.

3. Supporters latch onto various arguments

When this happens, supporters also grab onto different reasons, for instance:

I love Michelle Obama, but I’m not sure what “I’m good enough” has to do with it… OF COURSE Biles is already good enough, but what does it have to do with competing or not competing?

Same with the sexual abuse argument. What Larry Nassar did (and other people knew but covered up) was unspeakable and unforgivable.

But again… what does that have to do with competing or not competing in the Olympics?

A more focused message: clear frame

Imagine if Biles had actually crafted her message with focus and clarity.

Something like this:

I decided to pull out because mentally I’m just not well enough to compete.

Some people may think it’s a poor reason, and we’ve always been taught to just push through mental stress, push through even physical injuries, and never quit.

But I think that’s wrong. I think it’s time we put athletes’ mental health on the same level of importance as physical health. Because the two are intimately connected.

In gymnastics, when your mind is not there, you can lose orientation in the air — like I did during warmups — and you could suffer career-ending injuries. It’s the same with many other sports. Mental and physical health are connected.

To ignore all of that, to still compete and risk your mental and physical health — that’s not being strong. To be aware of and to take care of your mental and physical wellbeing as athletes. That’s strength.

That’s the mental-physical health connection frame.

You could well pick other frames.

But whatever you pick, stick to it, and speak strongly on its behalf.

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Andrew Yang

Former presidential speechwriter. Now helping CEOs and founders tell better stories. Co-founder of Presentality