‘I think it was the right call,’ Knoxville gymnastic coach comments on Simone Biles dropping out of team finals

Japan 2020

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — With gymnasts training locally hoping to one day be in the Olympics, all eyes are on the 2020 Olympics at GymTek Academy, including the decision Simone Biles made to drop out of the team finals Tuesday.

After Biles’ first rotation on vault in the team finals, she took a seat on the sideline due to a medical issue.

“No injury, thankfully, and that’s why I took a step back because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured. So, I thought it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job, which they absolutely did. They’re Olympic Silver Medalists now and they should be really proud of themselves for how well they last minute,” Biles said during a news conference after the US team took home silver.

Matt Henry, head coach and owner of GymTek Academy, said the Olympics are a big deal for his sport, so of course, he was watching Biles compete.

“It’s literally our Superbowl,” Henry said.

Henry said gymnastics isn’t often in the spotlight, although college is starting to become more popular on the big screen. So, as a coach of future Olympic hopefuls, he has to pay attention to what the competition is doing.

“We watch the Olympics this year, we’ve already got the new rule book for the next, what we call, the quadrennium, which is the next four years. So we take that rule book and we look at the trends over the last eight years and kind of try to predict the future a little bit, and see where gymnastics might go,” Henry said.

With the sport not being in the spotlight so often, Henry said most people don’t see all the work that goes on in between the big competitions. He said gymnastics goes on all year long, on top of gymnasts spending 25 plus hours training a week.

“It’s daunting and it is a lot, and you know, you have an athlete here that’s made the National Team here in the US and so he had a very long season this year. We started competing in December, and didn’t stop until June this year,” Henry said.

Alex Nitache practicing at GymTek Academy.

Henry said that’s why physical and mental breaks are part of the schedule.

He said what the gymnasts go through during the Olympics is 10 times more stressful than what they deal with at local competitions.

“Even more so for athletes like Simone. The entire world is watching. Every single person’s eyes are on you, that kind of pressure we can’t really replicate. We, as coaches, try to do the best jobs as we can,” Henry said.

Henry said they can never truly replicate a competition like Nationals, World Championships and the Olympics.

Jed Blanton, Assistant Professor of Sports Psychology at the University of Tennessee, said the mind cannot be separated from the body, and athletes have to be aware of that.

“We try to look at interventions, words, activities, practice regimens that are psychology framed or focus that can prime that person to have a helpful performance response,” Blanton said.

Blanton said the pressure competition is similar to the excitement for a fan, but it carries more meaning and can impact them more if not mentally prepared.

He said psychological disruptions could be worse for an athlete compared to physical disruptions from the crowd. So he tries to train his athletes about, essentially, how to get into a better headspace.

“The working brain can only carry four bits of information at one time, so can only focus on four novel things at once. And if one of those things is what ‘might happen, and what could happen’, now I’m at 50 percent brainpower to do what I’m supposed to do now,” Blanton said.

Blanton said for Biles, from what he could tell based on the interviews he watched, he doesn’t believe she’s not used to the kind of pressure of the Olympics, because she’s been a world champion since 2013.

He said he believes she couldn’t get the ‘what if’s’ out of her head.

“It’s one thing when she’s in the gym with her and her coach, and she’s on the vault and she’s on the floor, and sure, she’s thinking about the consequences. What she does is incredibly dangerous. But, she’s focused on doing it well. At the world stage, not only are the consequences, “I could hurt myself,” but, “what’s going to happen to my sponsorships, what are the little girls that are watching me (thinking about), what are the trolls on my Twitter handle going to say,'” Blanton said.

He said all of that going through someone’s head, plus doing flips and turns, can be overwhelming.

Henry said being in the right headspace for a gymnast is extremely important because losing their train of thought mid-rotation in the air can be very dangerous.

“Doesn’t matter the stage that you’re on, the Olympics Games is not worth injuring yourself over or fatally injuring yourself over and some of the skills that she’s doing, that’s very possible,” Henry said.

Henry, as a gymnast and a coach, said he knew immediately when Biles made a mistake on the vault. Because of that, he could tell something was off.

He said his students learn numerous amounts of lessons from the Olympics, but what Biles did by walking away is one he tries to teach his students often.

“You’re going to fall. You’re going to mess up, and even the best in the world are going to mess up and it’s ok. But it’s what you do after the fact that creates a champion and makes you great,” Henry said.

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