Ex-gymnasts explain the dreaded 'twisties,' and why Simone Biles was right to withdraw

Ex-gymnasts explain the dreaded 'twisties,' and why Simone Biles was right to withdraw

America's star gymnast Simon Biles backed out of the team final citing 'twisties' a mental condition.

Simone Biles, possibly America's greatest ever gymnast, pulled out of the team final at the Tokyo Olympics, leaving many confused. She had no apparent physical injury, but had backed out citing a phenomenon called "the twisties." People all over the world had waited with bated breath for Biles to light up the Olympics but were suddenly confused, asking one another what had really happened. After two botched vaults, Biles removed herself from the competition, later saying, "I had no idea where I was in the air." Gymnasts all over the world understood what she meant by that, it was a condition they dreaded. Twisties is a mental state where your muscle memory fails you when you're in the air mid-twist. Gymnasts lose their bearings and can even result in serious injuries. Gymnasts often experience twisties under extreme pressure and that's just what happened to Biles, explain former gymnasts who weighed in on the condition. 

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 25: Simone Biles of Team United States competes on balance beam on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)


Everyone with experience or information about the condition praised Biles for realizing the condition and heeding to the signs. Former gymnast and diver Catherine Burns addressed the condition in a Twitter thread and possibly summed it up best. "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)," wrote Burns.



"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 your 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," she wrote. 

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 25: Simone Biles of Team United States competes on vault during Women's Qualification on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)


"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," said Burns, before touching upon her personal experience with twisties. "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."



Twisties is a condition that's familiar to gymnasts and divers in particular because they do acts that can be disorienting to their brain. So. "Simone'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?" wrote Burns, but also praised Biles for not buying into the narrative that the sport is greater than the athlete and demands great sacrifice even if it comes at personal cost. "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, Biles," she concluded. 



Biles also shared a post highlighting how dangerous the twisties can be. "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," read the post.



Jacoby Miles, who was paralyzed after a gymnastics accident at age 15, pointed to her own life as an example. "I experienced those mental blocks throughout my career as a gymnast 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," wrote Miles. 

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Jordan Chiles and Simone Biles of Team United States react during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)


There have been many armchair experts who have been targeting Biles, with little knowledge, experience, or concern for the mental health of a person straining under immense pressure. With her decision, Biles had prioritized her own safety and gave the American team its best possible chance to win. Gymnasts are lauding Biles for her incredibly brave decision and her withdrawal will never change the fact that Biles will always be one of America's greatest ever gymnasts. 

Recommended for you