How did Simone Biles overcome the twisties?

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 11
Biles competing in Gymnastics - Artistic: 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Simone Biles is widely known as the best gymnast of all time. However, as is the case in sports, even giants have bad days. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the crowd saw Biles land very awkwardly when she only completed one-and-a-half rotations instead of the two-and-a-half she meant to perform. Despite gaining more than enough height after hitting the vault table, she looked a little lost in the air.

Biles at the Tokyo Olympics
Biles at the Tokyo Olympics

After her performance, she told reporters that she experienced a little bit of the "twisties". Following the terrifying experience, Biles, to everyone's surprise but her own, pulled out of five Olympic finals. It is to be noted that it is very dangerous to perform any twists while experiencing the twisties.

However, unlike many gymnasts, Simone got over the psychological condition fairly quickly. She was seen executing twists with perfect form just a few weeks after the incident. Speaking to PEOPLE, she said:

"I have been to the gym and did a little bit of working out. It's frustrating because I can do everything again. I don't know ... the stress, anxiety, the build-up or whatever happened, happened."
Simone Biles - Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 4
Simone Biles - Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 4

In the same interview, she mentioned the ways in which her coaches helped her get over the mental block. Coach Laurent apparently asked her to get on a trampoline and complete a full-in. The American gymnast said that it all came back to her in her first jump like it was "second nature again".


Biles trained in Japan after the incident

After pulling out of five finals, Biles returned for the balance beam final in Tokyo and secured the bronze medal. In a tweet, she mentioned how this became possible and thanked Japan's Junetendo University, who provided her with some private training space to get out of her head and figure out what went wrong.

Wataru Kawai, the gymnastics coach at Junetendo University, expressed his worries during Simone's training:

"She was very different. It looked like she was suffering. I was hoping I could do something to help her."

Apparently, training at Junetendo helped her in getting away from all the media and the critics after the incident. This was pivotal in her recovery from the twisties.


The science behind the "twisties"

'Twisties' is a gymnastics term similar to the 'yips' in other sports. These terms refer to a psychobiological phenomenon where an athlete seemingly loses control of their muscles mid-movement, leaving them ''lost in space". The condition can be very dangerous, especially for gymnasts, who leap several meters into the air.

Kamoto flying high at the 2022 Gymnastics World Championships, 2022
Kamoto flying high at the 2022 Gymnastics World Championships, 2022

The motor-learning process is vital in drilling the minute movements into the brain of the athlete and while learning a new skill. Information processing begins through vision. It is then sent to the brain by proprioceptive nerve cells, which inform the brain about the body's position. The information processed in the brain is aided by a complex system in the ear which accounts for balance. Muscular movements then occur without any thought based on past experiences. Elite athletes rely on this process occurring in a split-second.

Failure of any of these processes results in the body being left 'hanging' by the brain, causing the 'yips' or 'twisties'. Once this happens, a load of psychological barriers are put up, making it very difficult to recover.

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Edited by Sabine Algur
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