What are the "twisties" in gymnastics?

I know many people are wondering given everything that happened with Simone Biles this past summer. I explain below so keep reading to find out more about what having the "twisties" means in gymnastics and how you can handle it if you ever find yourself in this situation.

But first, check out this video I did talking about what happened to Simone Biles at the 2020 Summer Games and telling you more about the "twisties."

We saw Simone Biles withdraw from the Team Final at the 2020 Summer Games due to a bout with the "twisties." And while there was buzz from different media personalities who are not personally involved in the sport of gymnastics that they thought Simone had just given up, if you're a gymnast you know that wasn't the case at all.

The "twisties" in gymnastics is when a gymnast's body and mind go through a disconnect as she's doing a skill. Spatially, gymnasts have trouble knowing where they are in the air and often they feel lost and confused. It's like all of a sudden they become disoriented, even though it's a skill they've been able to easily execute in the past.

Unlike a mental block, however, gymnasts don't necessarily freeze when doing a skill. Instead they can attempt the skill but lose their sense of spatial awareness mid-air. As we know, in a sport like gymnastics where there is very little room for error in the air, if a gymnast gets the "twisties" she is in a very dangerous situation. Not knowing up from down and where you are in space is a recipe for disaster for any gymnast and one that could potentially be life-threatening.

In the case of Simone Biles, her decision to withdraw might have seemed sudden and drastic, but her skills had been gradually feeling "off" during the Summer Games as well as in the competitions leading up to the Games such as in Championships and Trials. If you watch her compete at those competitions, you can see how skills were starting to feel weird to her based on her facial expressions and uncharacteristic crying after falling off beam. 

But as you might already guess, this "decline" in skills was not because of her lack of physical ability.

We know for a fact that Simone was in the best shape she's ever been in coming into the 2020 Summer Games.

She was at the top of her game, so to speak, and was undoubtedly the best gymnast she had ever been.

Rather, this change in consistency with her skills is something that originated from a mental perspective. And although she may have felt like the "twisties" just randomly appeared, the truth is that any type of a mental block is NEVER random. There are always warning signs along the way and certain stressful factors that contribute to a mental block that were present long before the mental block reared its ugly head.

Unfortunately many gymnasts ignore these signs along the way. And this is what leads to situations that are dangerous like the "twisties."

What Causes The "Twisties" In Gymnastics?

So what causes the "twisties?"

There are many reasons why a mental block like the "twisties" can happen.

But the bottom line is that when something like this occurs it's because your brain senses danger and goes into an automatic survival mechanism known as the fight-flight-or-freeze response. This autonomic system response originates from the amygdala, the feeling part of your brain that senses danger. It then alerts the hypothalamus which starts a cascade of responses that triggers the autonomic nervous system response so that your body can stay and fight the danger, flee from the danger as fast as it can, or freeze in the face of danger.

So the question becomes...what does your brain perceive as danger?

In gymnastics, danger can be anything from feeling pressure to perform to expectations you put on yourself to do well. It can be the perceptions you have about how your coaches or parents think about you or it can be needing to learn a particular skill within a certain timeframe.

When your brain feels these pressures it signals the fear response and your brain immediately does what it can to preserve your body and protect it from harm. In this case it shuts down, either through a block where you physically cannot make yourself do a skill or something like the "twisties" where it stops you in mid-air so you lose all awareness of where you are in space.

In essence, your brain is telling you to stop doing the skill because it feels that skill is not safe for your body. But int he case of the "twisties" it is shutting things down mid-air, which like I said earlier, is an extremely dangerous situation for a gymnast.

Unlike physically life-threatening danger, however, these emotional dangers don't come on suddenly. Your feelings, along with your sense of perceived stress, cause a buildup that eventually gets to a point of no return. That's when your brain perceives this as danger and responds by putting on the brakes or by giving you the "twisties."

 

How Can You Prevent The "Twisties" From Happening?

One of the biggest things that you can do along the way to prevent mental blocks like the "twisties" from happening is to continuously monitor your mental health. Ask yourself what your stress level is like. Keep tabs on the pressures you're feeling. Note whether you are in crunch time where you're having to learn new skills fast or whether meets are quickly approaching and you're feeling extra stress to perfect skills. All of these things will contribute to mental blocks and the "twisties."

Pressure is one of the biggest causes of mental blocks and the "twisties." In the case of Simone Biles at the 2020 Summer Games, she was feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders. The pressure to win 6 gold medals, to be the face of the Olympics, and to live up to her sponsorships was a lot to handle.

Couple those things with the stress of Covid and the disruption to her training leading up to the Games, the extra year of wear and tear on her body and mind, and competing at one of the biggest competitions in her life far from family and in a virtually empty arena, and you can understand why her brain perceived threats to her well-being. Other personal factors played a role too like stress from the hearings surrounding Larry Nassar as well as a death in her family.

In the end, Simone's brain decided things were unsafe.

While most of us aren't Simone Biles, we still feel our own perceptions of pressure and stress. And as big or small as those stressors may be, they are perceived by our brains as threats. 

Therefore, being able to stay on top of your mental health during your journey in gymnastics is vital to your well-being, not only as a gymnast but also as a human.

If you let these stressors get too big, your brain will respond by taking charge. 

How Do You Handle The "Twisties" If They Happen To You In Gymnastics?

First of all, if you do find yourself with a bout of the "twisties" it's important to make sure you are physically safe. This means taking a break from doing the skill that you have the "twisties" on. 

While gymnasts may try to do that skill into a pit or onto a resi-mat, the truth is that when you are going through a bout of the "twisties" there is no amount of padding that can make the skill safe again. 

Second, what you need most is to figure out what might have caused the "twisties" in the first place, whether it was feeling pressure, being stressed, or having an intense timeline within which you needed to perform a skill.

Once you can figure out what is contributing to the twisties, you can then work to change your perceptions of pressure or stress that are doing more harm than good.

Often gymnasts will find that once those pressures are removed, their brain releases its tight grip and allows them to do the skill again. Even Simone found that once she was back in her home gym with all the pressures of the Olympic Games behind her, she was able to do her twisting skills again.

I've created a 5 Video Mental Health Training For Gymnasts to help gymnasts recognize how important it is to understand their brains and the pressure they're feeling. 

You'll learn valuable tips to help you learn how to release those pressures that you feel in gymnastics as well as learn how to recognize how your brain perceives danger in gymnastics.  

 

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If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.

 

Gymnastics Mental Blocks Guidebook for Parents

 

Helpful Links:

 

 

Gymnastics Mental Coach Anna Kojac, M.Ed.

 

 

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