Simone Biles: What are ‘twisties’ in gymnastics and why are they so dangerous?

alt="woman gymnast swinging over a vault" What are twisties and why are they so dangerous? (Image: Canva)

Simone Biles has left the world polarised over her decision to quit her Olympic run. The US gymnast cited mental health reasons to withdraw from the team after she struggled to complete her first vault. Biles said while she felt ok physically, her emotional state varies according to the time and moment. While addressing reporters, she mentioned having the “twisties,” which prompted many current and former gymnasts to empathise with Biles’ condition.

Ever wondered how gymnasts always (well, almost always) land on their feet in perfect poise? The reason is proprioception, or an “ability to sense stimuli arising within the body regarding position, motion and equilibrium.” It’s part of our sixth sense or somatosensation.

So even if we are blindfolded, we know exactly where our arms and legs are and how they are positioned.

In rhythmic gymnastics, the athlete requires physical qualities like agility, flexibility, strength, skill, and above all, a strong sense of proprioception. When this sense is disturbed, the gymnast experiences “twisties.”

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What are twisties in gymnastics?

Twisties is a phenomenon in which a gymnast experiences a sudden loss of sense when they are performing twisting acts mid-air. According to mental performance coach Jamie Shapiro, who spoke to  Health, there is a disconnection between the brain and body when someone experiences twisties.

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Despite an innocuous-sounding name, twisties can be quite disconcerting for the person experiencing it. Shapiro added that a sudden loss of senses can make the gymnast lose his or her ability to perform. Mentally, twisties can cause anxiety and jitters, worsening the mental block. This could explain why Biles decided to opt-out when her first vault didn’t land as expected.

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Why are twisties dangerous?

It can also be very dangerous, as the gymnast doesn’t know how and where to land. “As someone who had the twisties once, it’s what caused me to fracture my back and end my career. I was only a level 10, and not planning on continuing after high school. my back still bothers me to this day, Simone could have done much worse,” wrote one gymnast on Twitter.

Another gymnast named Christina wrote that the body stops doing what it wants to do and “seemingly develops a mind of its own — adding twists or even extra flips to the skills you set out to do.”

She further explained: “Of control that kept it all so scary. Flying through the air with no ability to control what I was doing, despite knowing exactly how to do it. That period of my career destroyed my back and ultimately took me out of the sport.”

 Giulia Steingruber, is a Swiss artistic gymnast and an Olympic bronze medalist, said in an interview: “In 2014 summertime, when I wanted to twist, especially on vault, I had no feeling where I am, I was really scared, I was afraid to do it. It was quite tough for me because I didn’t understand why it came, and I couldn’t stop it so, it was strange for me, the feeling was horrible.

Is Simone Biles right to quit?

Not everyone received Biles decision to pull out of the Olympics well. Some have accused her of showing poor sportsmanship and not persevering through self-doubts as an athlete should. Others have called her out for leaving her team in the lurch. But twisties can end careers.

Shapiro says that it could take days, weeks or years for gymnasts to break free from twisties. Many don’t recover. Considering what is at stake, Biles isn’t entirely wrong to back out. There’s probably no glory in quitting, but there’s nothing to gain from putting one’s mental and physical health at risk too.