When Simone Biles unexpectedly pulled herself out of the gymnastics team final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she sent shockwaves throughout the world. She had just competed on vault, and her scary performance may not have registered as such in the minds of casual gymnastics fans. But the faces of her teammates said it all: Biles had narrowly avoided disaster.
The vault in question was the difficult Amanar, which consists of 2½ twists off the vault table, a skill that very few gymnasts in the world can pull off. But instead of completing 2½ twists, Biles was only able to get around 1½ times. It wasn’t apparent what was wrong at the time, but fans later learned that the greatest gymnast of all time was suffering from the “twisties.”
Despite a benign-sounding name, the twisties are a dangerous predicament, and they’re prevalent among gymnasts of all ages and abilities. But the concept can be challenging to grasp if you’re not part of the gymnastics world. To help you understand what happened in Tokyo, we’re going to take a close look at everything you need to know about the twisties.
The Twisties: What Causes Them
Before talking about what causes the twisties, it’s helpful to understand some mechanics of the sport.
Proprioception and Kinesthesia
Every skill in gymnastics, from the most basic leap to the incredibly complex skills Simone Biles performs, requires cat-like awareness of time and space.
Athletes must know where their body is in the air at all times. This awareness is called proprioception, and it allows the gymnast to judge how much time they have to complete any given skill. Proprioception also allows the gymnast to know if they have enough height to do a skill. After all, knowing where you are isn’t helpful unless you are high enough off the ground.
Kinesthesia is just as important in gymnastics as it’s the sensation that tells you which direction the body is moving in space. For most people, kinesthesia and proprioception will never help us flip through the air, but instead, they allow us to describe the direction of our hand when it’s moving in space—even if our eyes are closed.
While we don’t need much practice to tell what our hand is doing, training sure is vital for developing the neural pathways that create kinesthesia and proprioception (or muscle memory, as most people know it). Practice—lots and lots of practice—is what enables gymnasts to safely complete skills, especially disorienting flipping or twisting motions.
To put it in terms that everyday people can understand, think about driving a car. When you first learn to drive, you have to think through every movement—when to put your foot on the gas, brake, etc. But after you’ve been driving for a while, all conscious thought goes away. You don’t think about what to do when you’re changing lanes or shifting gears—you just do it.
For gymnasts, it’s the same thing. They get up to perform a routine, and they’re not thinking about the mechanics of performing each skill. Instead, their body just knows what to do.
The Broken Connection Between Body and Mind
But when a gymnast is suffering from the twisties, they experience interference with muscle memory. Essentially, the connection between their mind and body gets broken. No one knows why the twisties happen, but suddenly, the athlete is incapable of making the correct number of twists or flips. They lose control of their bodies as they’re moving through the air.
It’s vital to note that the term “twisties” does not refer to a medical diagnosis. Simone Biles did not need to see a doctor to know she was experiencing them, and they’re not a mental health issue. Rather, the twisties describe an adverse mental performance situation.
The Twisties in Other Sports
The twisties are not unique to gymnastics; they exist in many other sports, though they have a different name. You may have heard about the yips, which refer to twitches or unexplained jerky movements in the wrist. The yips most commonly affect golfers as they’re trying to putt, but they occur in sports like cricket, baseball, and darts, too.
While some people have a neurological condition that affects their muscles, many other athletes experience the yips due to mental interference. These people are suffering from performance anxiety that hinders their ability to play as they usually would.
What Happens When You Get the Twisties
Though the yips are just as devastating for the aspirations of golfers and baseball players, the twisties are a more high-stakes issue in gymnastics. A few different things can happen when they strike.
The most typical issue is that the gymnast starts to twist when the skill doesn’t require it. For example, someone suffering from the twisties may involuntarily initiate a twist while doing a straightforward back tuck.
Another common issue with the twisties is that they cause the gymnast to stop midway through a skill. The results of stopping in the middle of a complicated salto can be disastrous, leading to an awkward landing at best and serious bodily injury, and even paralysis or death, at worst.
It’s a tribute to Simone Biles’ extreme athleticism and experience that she could safely land her failed Amanar vault after stopping midway through it. She received an outpouring of support from other gymnasts on social media, who expressed that they would have blown a knee or been paralyzed if the same thing had happened to them in competition.
The Twisties: A Vicious Cycle
The twisties are so dreaded within the gymnastics community because even just one instance can have disastrous consequences. It’s terrifying not to know where you are in the air, and it’s hard to forget it when it happens to you.
The twisties then start to get inside your head, and you begin to doubt yourself. Instead of their body going on autopilot when the athlete performs a skill, they begin to overthink it. They start to worry about not being able to control their body, especially when doing dangerous high-level skills. This doubt causes stress, which makes the situation worse and becomes a vicious cycle.
The Twisties Gymnastics: A Slippery Slope
Not only are the twisties hard to forget, but they can also have a domino effect and spread to skills on other apparatuses. So if you have them on the vault, your skills on bars or floor may be affected as well—which is what happened to Simone Biles in Tokyo.
She explained that she’d experienced the twisties before, but the block never affected her ability to perform on beam and bars—until she set foot in the Tokyo arena. Ultimately, she was affected by every single event, though not all events are created equal.
As Rio gold medalist and Biles’ fellow Olympic teammate Laurie Hernandez explained, the beam is better since the athlete is primarily upright. Bars, however, can be especially tricky. Hernandez said that swinging on bars can create an unsafe situation for athletes dealing with the twisties, as they constantly swing upside down.
This statement appeared to be true for Biles, who mentioned that she couldn’t tell up from down. She posted a video of her training bars to illustrate the issue (which she later took down), and on Twitter described having no idea where she was going to land due to lack of air awareness.
While Biles ultimately competed in the beam final (where she snagged a bronze medal), she had to make some last-minute changes. Notably, she had to change her dismount, which included twisting elements, and relearn a double pike. Commentators later mentioned that she could only do that skill successfully by grabbing hard onto her legs as she flipped, which minimized her body’s desire to twist unnecessarily.
How to Prevent the Twisties from Happening
If the twisties sound pretty scary, it’s because they are. You may be wondering if there is some way to keep them at bay.
Unfortunately, there is nothing athletes can do to prevent the twisties from happening. As mentioned above, no one knows exactly why they happen or when they’ll show up. And as we saw in Simone Biles’ case, elite gymnasts are not immune. The twisties can appear at the most inopportune times, like during an Olympic competition with a team medal on the line.
Indeed, the twisties strike without warning, and their appearance is difficult for affected athletes to understand. Swiss gymnast and Olympic bronze medalist Giulia Steingruber explained her experience with the twisties in a 2016 post.
“When I wanted to twist, especially on vault … I had no feeling where I am,” Steingruber said, describing her experience in 2014. “I was really scared. It was quite tough for me because I didn’t understand why it came, and I couldn’t stop it. It was just strange for me, and it was horrible.” Luckily, she was able to relearn her skills slowly and ultimately earned a medal in Rio.
Former U.S. elite gymnast Aleah Finnegan describes a similar experience with the twisties. She writes on Twitter, “You have absolutely no control over your body and what it does. And the more you psych yourself about it, the worse it becomes. There was a point in time where I couldn’t even do a back roll without wanting to turn my head to twist.”
Reducing Stress—the Key to Avoiding the Twisties?
Though the twisties are unpredictable, many athletes report that they are most likely to appear during moments of stress. The stress of preparing for a competition is perhaps the most common, and the pressure can be crippling.
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Simone Biles was a four-time Olympic champion, and there was great expectation that she would take home several medals from Japan. Commentators and news outlets alike lauded her superstar status, calling her the “greatest of all time,” and saying Biles was unbeatable.
All eyes were on her before she ever set foot in Tokyo, and the day before the fateful team competition in Tokyo, Biles spoke on Instagram of the enormous pressure she was under. She wrote to her followers that she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. It would seem that the whole world had lost sight of the fact that she, while extraordinary, is still a human being.
All the attention focused squarely on Biles likely played a role in her getting the twisties in Tokyo. And when added to the personal and emotional pressure she likely places on herself, the conditions for an extreme mental block had already been put in place.
What to Do When Gymnasts Have “The Twisties” — How Do You Cope
As Simone Biles’ shocking exit from the team final demonstrated, the twisties can strike at any time and in any situation—and more commonly than casual gymnastics fans may realize.
When they do strike, the most critical thing for the athlete is taking the time needed to re-establish the connection between mind and body. The worst thing to do is try to push through the extreme disorientation that comes with not knowing where you are in the air.
Especially when it comes to elite gymnasts, these high-level athletes perform skills that require their complete attention and confidence. Even the slightest misstep can result in career-ending and life-altering injuries.
Given the stakes involved, it’s normal to wonder how gymnasts cope when they get the twisties. While every athlete is different, coaches generally employ the following tactics to get their gymnast back on track.
Go with the Flow
The most vital thing to do is accept the situation. You can’t merely “tough out” the twisties or fight them; instead, you have to let them run their course.
Twisties can last days, weeks, or months. You have to take it day by day, skill by skill, and turn by turn. Gymnasts who put pressure on themselves to get back to normal in a specific time frame can worsen the situation.
Though many people criticized Simone Biles, she ultimately made the right decision to sit out the vault, bars, and floor finals. She knew she could not perform at the highest level and prioritized her mental health and well-being.
This difficult decision also enabled her teammates to clinch the silver medal in the team final, which would have been impossible had she continued to compete.
Go Back to Basics
Besides accepting the situation, gymnasts can take more active steps to overcome the twisties. For one to understand these steps, it’s essential to comprehend how gymnasts learn skills in the first place.
When you watch a competition, you may think how scary it must have been for an athlete to do a skill for the first time: for example, a back handspring on a beam. But the reality is that a gymnast slowly works up to that back handspring. First, they learn the skill on the floor, then they try doing it on a low-profile beam, and finally, they take it up to the high beam.
Athletes always start with the most basic elements, like straddle sits and hopping to a safe landing, often taking months or years to perfect. Skills only increase in difficulty once the gymnast has mastered the foundational elements, little by little—and as their confidence increases.
When the twisties strike, most coaches have the athlete return to basics and slowly rebuild their skills to build confidence back up. In severe cases of the twisties, the gymnast may go back to doing things like simple back rolls, which toddlers learn to do, and dive rolls. They then work back to their full abilities.
A common progression might have the gymnast go back to doing simple back tucks and then moving to back layouts. After a while, they can add a half twist and then progress to a full. During this time, athletes practice them on soft surfaces and foam pits to minimize the risk of injury.
While unfortunate, Simone Biles’ case of the twisties at the Olympic games brought to light a common issue in gymnastics. But perhaps most importantly, Biles’ brave decision has already become a watershed moment in sports. It sparked a much-needed conversation about mental matters in gymnastics and sports in general.
She’s shown us that whether we’re talking about the yips or the twisties, high-level athletes face tremendous and crippling pressure. While some stress can be positive, too much can cause athletes to push themselves to the brink and lead to unsafe situations.
Biles’ decision to step aside and care for her mental health—even with Olympic honors on the line—is a valuable lesson to us all.