Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Why Simone Biles pulled out of rhe Olympics

After Simone Bules suddenly pulled out of the US gymnastics team mid-Olympics, there has been a lot of confusion and hypothesizing. Did she just choke? Shouldn't she be able to handle the pressure with all her high-level experience? Doesn't she owe it to her team-mates - to her country - to suck it up, whatever "it" is? Is she a "selfish, childish national embarassment", as one Texas politician has it?

In her press conference, the diminutive American gymnast stated that she was stopping for mental health reasons, not physical ones, so most people probably assumed that it was something along the lines of the anxiety attacks that have plagued other sports personalities like Naomi Osaka. And yes, she does suffer from anxiety and srress from the immense pressure of expectations on her small shoulders, what she has called her "demons".

But, it seems there is something in gymnastics called "the twisties", and this is what Biles has been suffering from, and what caused her to abandon hopes of personal and team glory, apparently in mid-flow. It is kind of the gymnastics version of "the yips", an equally poorly-understood psychological condition that can affect sports people in mamy different fields.

From the name, the twisties sounds like a spurious, frivolous, or at least mild, issue. But it is a recognized problem that has affected many gymnasts at different times (although rarely at such a crucial time). It can set in when a gymnast is doing high-level elements, typically in floor or vault, and it causes a gymnast's brain to kind of stutter, or forget basic moves that are normally part of muscle memory in a highly-trained gymnast. Without complete control or an accustomed perfect rhythm, such a competitor risks some pretty grave injuries, which is in no-one's interest, least of all the gymnast concerned. It can be overcome, but with time and training, and not overnight.

The twisties are well-known within the gymnastics discipline, which is why Biles' team seems quite so supportive and forgiving, but hardly known at all outside of it, which is why people like me were so confused by it. It seems like Byles made a difficult, but good, call.

Certainly, Ms. Biles and Ms. Osaka between them have probably trained the spotlight on the mental health of high-level athletes like never before. "I say put mental health first ... It's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus onbyourself", quoth Biles, which is all but anathema in ultra-competitive Olympic circles. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn, though, that the International Olympic Committee already provides trained sports psychologists in the Olympic Village, as well as a mental health helpline available in no less than seventy languages.

No comments: