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kottke.org posts about Simone Biles

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.

Simone Biles, Mesmerizing in Slow Motion

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2021

Gymnast Simone Biles won her 7th US Gymnastics Championship this past weekend, further cementing her status as the world’s best gymnast and one of the most dominant athletes of all time in any sport. In her floor exercise routine on the first day of the competition, Biles absolutely nailed a triple double — that’s three twists while doing two backflips. Timothy Burke took the footage and slowed it down so that we can see exactly what’s going on in the air. And, Jesus, I was NOT prepared for what I saw. The two handsprings that set up the final move are beautiful slowed down, leisurely even. But then Biles launches herself impossibly high into the air — like absurdly and spectacularly high — and starts twisting and flipping at a speed that seems fast even for slow motion. And the landing — it’s like she was standing there all along, waiting for the rest of her spirit to join her. Watching the routine at regular speed makes you appreciate the move even more.

In reaction to this move, NBA head coach Stan Van Gundy, who has seen his fair share of elite athletes doing amazing things over the years, exclaimed: “How is that even humanly possible?” As if to preemptively answer him and everyone else watching, the sparkly leotard that Biles wore during her routine had a picture of a goat sown into it because she is the GOAT.

Simone Biles wearing a leotard with a picture of a goat sown into it

See also Who Could Jump Higher on a Trampoline, LeBron James or Simone Biles? (via the kid should see this)

Update: Physicist David Young analyzes Biles’ triple-double:

Assuming her rotation rates around each axis remain constant, to get three full flips in would require an extra 0.65 seconds, which requires a launch speed of 22.6 miles per hour, all other things being equal. This is not possible, even if we assume her max launch speed is 18 miles per hour, which is apparently her top sprinting speed.

However, if she could do three full flips, she would also be able to get in one-and-a-half more twists at her current rotation rate! What would this even be called?! What might be more likely would be to try to gain an extra half twist so that she would take off facing left and land facing right, still only completing two full flips.

(thx, donny)

Who Could Jump Higher on a Trampoline, LeBron James or Simone Biles?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2018

Biles Vs Lebron

An interesting question, courtesy of Marginal Revolution:

Who could launch themselves higher on a trampoline? LeBron James or Simone Biles?

James has more mass & height and is stronger in an absolute sense but Biles is extremely strong for her size and is one of the world’s leading experts in launching herself of off trampolines (or more properly, vault springboards).

The answer would depend a great deal on what is meant by “launch themselves higher”. If the height is judged as a percentage of body weight or height, Biles wins easily. If you’re talking about absolute height (as measured from the lowest point on their body at the jump’s peak), James’ greater mass and absolute strength works for him but Biles’ ability to time her jumps to build momentum and her acrobatic skill in getting more of her body higher may put her ahead of James. If their bodies need to remain vertical at the highest point in the jump (think a basketball player’s form vs. a high jumper’s), perhaps that favors James, even though his legs are much longer than Biles’, measuring from their centers of gravity.

From a pure physics perspective, is the trampoline just a multiplier of a person’s max vertical? James’ max vertical is said to be around 40 inches. Biles’ max vertical is harder to determine because gymnasts jumps are measured differently, but she can get her body about 53 inches off the floor (according to this analysis). Can James get his entire body 53 inches off the floor? What’s his box jump height? I imagine with various slow-motion videos, you could figure out which of them can get their center of gravity furthest off the ground…but handspringing into a layout, dunking, and bouncing on a trampoline are still not equivalent activities. The only real way to settle this is clear: let’s get James and Biles together at a trampoline park and have them go at it. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, or Twitter…make this spectacle happen!

A related question: Can Simone Biles dunk a basketball? A regulation hoop is 10 feet tall. I’m assuming she can’t palm a basketball but she might still be able to do a one-handed dunk with practice. Her height plus her floor exercise max height is 110 inches, about 9’2”. I don’t know how high her standing reach is, but assuming a similar ratio to mine (my reach is 25% of my height), that puts her theoretical maximum jumping reach, with many caveats, at about 124 inches (10’4”). A regulation WNBA ball has a diameter of about 9 inches. Soooooo….maybe but probably not? But if not, she could surely come closer than any other person in the world who is 4’9”.