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kottke.org posts about Catherine Burns

The Twisties

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 28, 2021

Yesterday, world champion gymnast Simone Biles removed herself from the women’s team final at the Olympics after not doing one of the planned two-and-a-half twists on her vault and stumbling on the landing. Biles said after the final:

I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness. I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for, kind of, my screw ups, because they’ve worked way too hard for that.

On Twitter, former gymnast and diver Catherine Burns explained that Biles was likely experiencing a case of “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.

It’s like driving a car, she explains. At first everything you do is unnatural and requires deep concentration to learn but once you’ve got it down, you can do it instinctively, without thinking or even paying that much attention. Then sometimes, in stressful situations, you start thinking too much about how to do the familiar thing and you lose it completely:

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.

And when you’re driving a car or performing a high-intensity sport like gymnastics, second guessing and overthinking can cause serious injury.

I used to write a lot about this kind of thing in this loosely connected series of posts on relaxed concentration. This phenomenon goes by many names — performance anxiety, stage fright, choking, the yips, cueitis (in snooker), and target panic (for archers) — and the world-class are not immune. Daniel Day-Lewis had stage fright so bad he quit the stage decades ago — an affliction he shared with Laurence Olivier, Barbra Streisand, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. If you’ve read anything at all about this stuff, Biles’ case of the twisties doesn’t seem so unusual or mysterious — it’s just one of those things that makes her, and the rest of us, human.

Update: I’d missed this yesterday: Biles herself told reporters about the twisties.

They saw it a little bit in practice… having a little bit of the twisties.

Which is something she’s struggled with before:

The twisties are an issue Biles has faced before, including in the lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and prior to the 2019 season.

“2019, at the beginning of the year, I forgot how to twist and flip. It was great,” Biles told Olympics.com in January 2020.