What Advisors Can Learn from Simone Biles

Some clients face overwhelming situations and need more than financial advice.

Catherine Seeber
Catherine Seeber

Most people who are aware of sports are familiar with the dreaded phenomenon of the “yips,” a term to describe when an athlete suddenly and seemingly involuntarily loses what makes them precise and coordinated. In gymnastics, the yips are called the “twisties” — and by nature are extremely dangerous, given what gymnasts do. The twisties are a state of disassociation affecting gymnasts, leaving them disoriented, unable to coordinate themselves in midair, and at risk for injury.

Gymnast Simone Biles faced criticism from some who believed that she quit on her team in the face of adversity at the Olympics in Tokyo in late July. Biles pushed back against such an idea, claiming that she had removed herself for her personal safety rather than as a reaction to an uncharacteristic performance.

We All Get the Twisties

It’s no different from when we go through a life event, say the death of a spouse. Family and friends may judge how we are reacting to the event and may offer unsolicited advice or comments on how we should be handling the situation. We all get the twisties at some point in our lives. We, like Biles, can be seemingly “in shape” and feeling good physically, yet there are nagging instances where we feel pressured to say or do something different than what our gut is suggesting.

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As financial advisors, we owe it to our clients to be attuned to their emotions before we launch into demonstrations on asset allocation, investment choices and financial goals.

What Simone Biles needed at that critical moment in her life is exactly what we need to provide to our clients: Support.

“What Simone Biles needed at that critical moment in her life is exactly what we need to provide to our clients: Support.”

This is accomplished by taking a deeper dive into what makes them feel great and what is making them flounder. It is also important that they understand they are working with a specialist that welcomes the messiness of life.

Addressing a Client’s Anxiety

One of my clients, Heidi, was finally strong enough to consider a divorce from her husband after 30 years. Her anxiety was directly related to the fact that he was an accomplished PhD engineer while she had forfeited her career. Despite her own incredible academic footing, she had spent most of their married life supporting one of their two daughters who struggled with depression and bi-polar behavior. Heidi’s husband would take off for weeks at a time, even during their daughter’s darkest hours. What’s more, he’d say he was staying somewhere and was found to be somewhere else.

One way I personally found the support I needed to help Heidi and others experiencing a life event was by becoming a Certified Financial Transitionist (CeFT). As a CeFT, I am fortunate enough to have the tools necessary to work with clients such as Heidi in ways that have nothing to do with their financial situation.

The shared elements of all the financial transitionist tools are to:

  • Create a safe place — a temporary respite from what may have felt like a real threatening place.
  • Get on the balcony, meaning getting out of the mess on the field and get a more distant view.

Mostly, these tools help us help them with defining their purpose. They enable us to enhance the flow, or provide positive trajectories for clients, as well as settle the struggles they are experiencing. In this process, you are helping to improve decision-making and therefore minimize clients’ regrets. Most advisors intuitively seek to help their clients with the emotional aspects of life struggles, but the tools CeFTs use help to formalize the discussions.

Timeouts and Teamwork

Heidi’s lack of self-confidence was getting in the way. The magnitude of her situation was overwhelming for her. A helpful tool for her — and one that we can all universally utilize immediately — was the “decision-free zone.”

This tool, which is really an exercise, provides a proactive timeout from making any nonessential decisions. The idea is to isolate the few decisions that are time-sensitive and most pressing (the now), and then divide other decisions into soon or later categories. It is imperative to remember that this is not a to-do list. Its primary purpose is to allow a client, not you, to put down on paper all the swirling thoughts rummaging through their head.

In Heidi’s case, we also used another tool, the “brain trust,” because her action steps required the assistance of another person. For example, who can Heidi rely on to feed and keep the other daughter company while she goes to visit her struggling daughter in the hospital? Who might be someone that has experienced this same transition and can help normalize the situation?

A brain trust can also include advisors, such as a divorce attorney, a real estate appraiser and a human resource director. A brain trust is sometimes referred to as the “circle of support.” The support provided is twofold: 1. instrumental, practical or professional, and 2. emotional, as noted in Heidi’s example.

Important Characteristics

The characteristics of the members on the team are just as important as who is on the team. Members may be brought into the fold for one event, or they might be brought on to be part of your client’s life for a prolonged period of time. Either way, important considerations are:

  • Can they respect your client’s boundaries?
  • Can they deal with your client thinking differently from them?
  • Are they flexible and respectful?
  •  Are they reliable and will they follow through on their commitment?

The professionals chosen must have high integrity and be skilled at their craft. They need to be collaborative and ready to help. Turf wars are unhelpful. There is more to this tool — such as communication preferences, who is responsible for the quarterbacking , and varying levels of formality — but hopefully you understand the benefits of a process such as this.

This kind of brain trust was the impetus of my comparing what Simone Biles was experiencing and needed to what our clients are experiencing and need as they navigate through difficult and sometimes spontaneous transitions. We can help them to reevaluate, to see the world more clearly, and to manage the expectations of others.

Considering Needs, Goals and Values

As for Simone Biles, she has certainly proven she has mastered her sport and remains the all-time most decorated gymnast in the world. But first and foremost, she has to consider her needs, goals and values.

Additional Reading: Help Clients So Much More By Being Proactive Instead of Reactive 

That’s what we want our clients to have, too. We help them stick to a strategy that we inch toward over time with practice. Still, life happens; each time we fall, we realize we are not perfect. But, if we face our failures and learn from them, the next time we have a setback we have more strength to face it.

If we can provide this kind of support to clients, they’ll have the self-awareness to get through life’s challenges and to make their second half of life as good as it can possibly be. They’ll also recognize the immeasurable value we bring to them.

Catherine M. Seeber, CFP, CeFT, is passionate about blending both financial and nonfinancial needs and desires of her clients to make the most of their resources, time, talent and energy as they transition through life. Cathy is a vice president and financial advisor with CAPTRUST.

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