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Former gymnasts explain the dreaded 'twisties' that prompted Simone Biles to withdraw

Since Simone Biles backed out of the team final at the Tokyo Olympics two days ago, the question everyone's been asking is "What the heck happened?"

After two botched vaults, Biles took herself out of the competition, later saying, "I had no idea where I was in the air."

Former gymnasts recognized her wording and have taken to social media to explain a condition known as "the twisties." On a basic level, the twisties is a mental state where your muscle memory shuts down in the air mid-twist. It can happen to any gymnast at any time, but is more likely under intense pressure. It might seem like a mental block is not something that could happen to the unrivaled Simone Biles, who routinely performs incredibly well under pressure, but brains are fickle things.

This explanation from former gymnast and diver Catherine Burns lays it out:


She wrote:

Hi, your friendly neighborhood former gymnast and diver here to attempt to explain the mental phenomenon Simone Biles is experiencing: the dreaded twisties. 💀

When you're flipping or twisting (or both!) it is very disorienting to the human brain. When training new flips and twists, you need external cues to learn how it feels to complete the trick correctly. (In diving, a coach yells "OUT" and you kick your body straight and pray).

Once you've practiced a trick enough, you develop the neural pathways that create kinesthesia which leads to muscle memory. Your brain remembers how your body feels doing the trick and you gain air awareness.

Think about something that took you a while to learn and required a lot of concentration at the time to get it right, but now is second nature. Driving a car is a good example (especially stick!)

Suddenly, in the middle of driving on the freeway, right as you need to complete a tricky merge, you have totally lost your muscle memory of how to drive a car. You have to focus on making you foot press the pedal at the right angle, turn the steering wheel just so, shift gears.

It's terrifying. You're moving way too fast, you're totally lost, you're trying to THINK but you know you don't usually have to think to do these maneuvers, you just feel them and do them.

The twisties are like this, and often happen under pressure. You're working so hard to get it right that you stop trusting your muscle memory. You're getting lost in the air, second-guessing your instincts, overthinking every movement.

It's not only scary and unnerving, it's incredibly dangerous even if you're doing basic gymnastics. The level of skills Simone throws combined with the height and power she gets can lead to catastrophic injury if you're not confident and connected to your kinesthesia.

This isn't as easy to fix as just sleeping it off and hoping for a better day tomorrow. It can look like retraining entire routines and tricks. I never mastered my front 1.5 with a full twist because I'd get the twisties and it would mess with my other twisting dives.

So. When Simone says she's taking it day by day, this is why. She's not soft. She didn't choke. She isn't giving up. It's a phenomenon every gymnast and diver has experienced and she happens to be experiencing it at the Olympics. Can you imagine the frustration? The heartbreak?

I'll also add that @Simone_Biles choosing to bow out pushes back against a dark narrative in gymnastics that you sacrifice yourself for the sake of the sport; you are the product of your coaches and you owe them wins, no matter the personal cost.

No. You owe nobody anything, and you especially don't owe them your body, your health, or your autonomy. I hope every single tiny baby gymnast got that message on self-advocacy and setting boundaries loud and clear. Thank you, @Simone_Biles."

Biles herself retweeted a post that reiterated how dangerous her situation truly was:

"For non-gymnasts, the fact that she balked mid-air and accidentally did a 1.5 on her first vault instead of a 2.5 is a big deal. It's terrifying. She could have been severely injured getting lost in the air like that. The fact that she somehow landed on her feet shows her experience and is incredible The margin for error on a skill like that is insanely low. A very small wrong move, and career-ending or even worse, life-threatening injuries can occur."

And other gymnasts have weighed in with attempts to explain to people outside the sport what the twisties mean and how real the mental block is.

One particularly sobering response came from Jacoby Miles, who was paralyzed after a gymnastics accident at age 15.

"I experienced those mental blocks throughout my career as a gymnast," she wrote, "and to be quite blunt, it only took one bad time of getting lost (or what they call the "twisties") in the air in a big flip to break my neck and leave me paralyzed...most likely for life...so I'm SO SO glad she decided not to continue until she's mentally recovered."

Many armchair commentators have attempted to explain why Biles backed out of the team competition and what it means about her as a competitor, but the only people whose commentary counts are those who have experienced what she's going through. Arguably, no one knows what it's like to be in Simone Biles's shoes, but other gymnasts understand the mental elements of the sport and what can happen if everything isn't aligned just right.

It's an act of wisdom to acknowledge when you're faced with a limitation out of your control, and an act of courage to sacrifice a dream in order to protect your well-being as well as your teammates. Good for Simone Biles for setting an example to other athletes to know when it's time to call it.


This article originally appeared on 04.15.19


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