The world of international gymnastics and fans of Tokyo 2020 were rocked this week when Simone Biles withdrew from team competition after struggling on a vault. She told coaches and fans she suffered a disconnect between mind and body, while attempting to execute a death-defying routine.
Simone refers to this condition as the “twisties.”
“For anyone saying I quit. I didn’t quit — my mind & body are simply not in sync.”Biles in an Instagram post
However, Simone did quit. More importantly, she quit on her team. Biles claims the phenomenon is a disorientation experienced by gymnasts that she described as when one “literally can not tell up from down.”
Simone knew up from down. We saw her walk. She could talk. An individual experiencing a balance disorder might struggle to walk and be unable to distinguish up from down. Causes include medications, ear infection, a head injury or anything else that affects the inner ear or brain. None of these led to Simone’s confusion.
Simone correctly diagnosed herself: her mind and body were simply not in sync. Experiencing this mental disconnect, she concluded it would be unsafe for her to compete and believed she had no choice but to withdraw.
Simone was wrong. She quit on herself; she quit on her team. I’m a pro athlete. I’ve suffered the twisties. All athletes at some point have. Know what? You’re not likely an Olympic or pro athlete, but you have experienced the twisties as well.
Ever walked into, for example, the bathroom to get something, yet when you get there, you have no idea what you wanted? You just experienced a twistie. You’re experiencing a mind-to-body disconnect.
Generally, this occurs when we’re preoccupied thinking about something else. We’re multi-tasking mentally and forget for a moment. Sometimes we can’t recall for a significant amount of time. Crazy, right?
Now imagine being Simone and know you can’t remember the routine. The entire world is watching. Cameras are in your face. You remember how to walk. You obviously can walk to the start line for the vault. However, you can’t remember the complex — and dangerous — routine. You’re blank, just as you felt wondering what you wanted in the bathroom
That would scare the SH*T outta me! And it scared Simone. Most importantly, the more frightened she became, the more impossible it was to recall the complex set of instructions she needed to safety and accurately complete the physical task.
What Causes a Twistie?
As mentioned, a twistie occurs when our mind is preoccupied with something else. A person with dementia has a medical condition that twists their mind. This is another category of mind-to-body disconnect that we won’t address here.
For the general population, including high-flying athletes, the disconnect is self-inflicted. You forgot what you needed in the bathroom as you were distracted thinking of something else. Simone forgot her routine due to FEAR.
FEAR is a mind-killer. Society is well-versed about this disrupter. Too much fear and a Straight-A student flunks a test. We hear stories more frequently about anxiety and poor school or test performance.
Our youngsters aren’t proficient negotiating fear. Women seem to be less well equipped than men. Doctors prescribe benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Klonopin or others. Parents, teachers or coaches might simply tell us to sit out. All are wrong.
Simone became scared. Couple days prior to the incident, she remarked to media she felt “the whole world was on her shoulders.” More scientifically, Simone experienced a Panic Attack.
In a related sports world situation, Hawaii’s GOAT and star football QB, Colt Brennan, admitted a few months prior to his untimely and unfortunate death he used cannabis (marijuana) prior to college and NFL games — to calm his anxiety. Fear blocked his ability to play. A bit of pakalolo got Colt “into his zone” so he would perform at the level he needed.
Simone Biles is a GOAT — one of the Greatest Of All Time. She failed in the Olympics. This caused her to let down her team, and ultimately, let down herself. She had trained years for this moment. FEAR robbed her of an opportunity to lead her team to gold and have another shot at gold for herself.
All of us — GOATs as well as couch potatoes — are equally born with a “lizard brain” at our core. This instinctual mechanism instructs us to choose Fight or Flight when confronted with something that scares us. FEAR prevents us from thinking clearly. Doesn’t take much thinking to run. We just turn and go — fast.
To fight, on the other hand, requires strategy and sometimes complex thinking. When overwhelmed with the pressure of the Olympic event, her upcoming vault, the importance of performing well for her family, coaches, teammates, and all of America and the world who were watching, Simone disconnected from mind and body. Her lizard brain took over. She fled — she withdrew from competition.
Win or Learn
You’ve heard the expression: one either wins or loses. I don’t believe this. I believe champions win or learn. Imagine you’re six years old again and want to learn how to ride a bike. First time you try, you fall. You didn’t win. You failed and it hurt. In my opinion, you didn’t lose — you learned a small amount how to stay upright on the bike.
Now, get back on the bike and try again. This time, maybe you go a longer distance before falling. Yes, you failed at your goal of “riding the bike,” but you didn’t lose. You pushed through the pain and learned a bit more this time.
Same thing happens the first time we try a new Algebra problem for example. We struggle; we attempt an answer. Nope, we failed. That hurts. Not the right answer. Did you lose? To me, you learned something in your failure. Now, try the problem or get back on the bike again.
In my view, one never “loses” unless they quit. Quitting is losing. Pushing forward, even when we fail — sometimes over and over and over — is learning. Ultimately, the one who keeps moving forward wins.
This is how Simone first learned to vault. She fell over and over. She didn’t quit. She hurt; she got bruised; maybe she pulled a muscle or sprained an ankle, yet she pushed forward. This eventually led to her multiple Gold, Silver and Bronze medals.
Simone won because she failed — over and over. With each failure, she learned. Learning taught her a lesson and eventually led to victory, which was becoming the best she was capable of becoming.
In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy set the nation on a mission to land human beings on the moon. NASA failed many times. Some rockets blew up on the launch pad. Some astronauts were killed. However, as a nation, we did not quit. We failed, we learned; we failed, we learned some more … and then we landed on the moon. We demonstrated our national greatness!
Surviving a Panic Attack
To me, Simone Biles is the Greatest Gymnast of all time. I have nothing but love, admiration and respect for this young 24-year-old. She did not perform her best in Tokyo 2020. She quit; she failed, but Simone and all of us can learn from this failure.
In fact, that Simone Biles did not take home another Olympic medal is the greatest gift of her career. We think of athletes as modern gods. Simone proved she’s just as human as all of us.
How many women or men suffer panic attacks each day? When a person does, they might feel ashamed, inferior or that something is wrong with them. However, we know nothing is wrong with Simone. She’s a GOAT. She’s a role model. And, yes, GOATs and role models have panic attacks just like ordinary people.
In Simone’s failure, we get an excellent lesson — if we are willing to learn from this incident.
Unfortunately, the world of social media has turned this episode into another ugly political event. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls believe they are being compassionate. Maybe, but they aren’t smart. Simone didn’t need to withdraw. Most importantly, Simone didn’t know the future. She quit without trying again.
Second, the Smart Girls discount the importance of team. Can a woman ever been a top CEO if she withdraws when decisions aren’t easy? How can a Smart Girl ever be President of the United States if she puts her needs before the nation?
We applaud @simonebiles’s brave decision to step back from Olympic competition & put her mental health & physical safety first. These decisions are not easy, especially on a world stage, but they are necessary. No one should be shamed for putting their needs first.Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls
Simone said, “So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are, rather than just battle through it.”
I disagree. By focusing on “herself,” Simone could not get away from her lizard brain. All she could do is flee from the competition. Had she focused on others — her team — she might have been able to “battle through it.”
How about the young man below, for example? I’m certain he and thousands of other young men and women would have loved to “sit out the big competition to focus on yourself.” Instead, we all know these brave, heroic and courageous human beings demonstrated to themselves and the world “how strong of a competitor and person they really are” by just battling through it.
Steps to Recover a Panic Attack
If you or someone you know experiences a panic attack, the first thing to do is find a quiet place. Second, the biggest mistake is to be alone. A panic attack occurs when our internal fear debilitates us.
We are over-thinking something that happened in the past or over-projecting what might happen in the future. This is a Selfish Disease. We are overly-focused on our self. Connecting with another is a start to returning to the NOW and re-establishing the mind-to-body link.
Human connection is amazing. If experiencing a panic attack, have someone simply hug you. Feel their heartbeat; hear their breathing. Let your heartbeat and breathing match theirs. If they are trained to help you, encourage the person to speak to you calmly and softly so you feel reassured.
If you are alone, again find a quiet place away from noise and distractions. Listen to your heartbeat. It may be racing. How about your breathing? Take deep, slow breaths. Try counting to ten as you inhale; count to ten as you exhale. No matter how hard things seem right now, you will get through this.
Simone didn’t need to withdraw from competition. We watched her exit the staging area. This decision was excellent. Had her coach hugged her, calmed her, held her … whispered quietly to her that everything would be alright, Simone might have been able to return and compete. It’s all in the mind.
Simone can execute routines with her eyes closed; she can visualize the routine while she sleeps. She knows how. Fear blocked her mind. Simone is a GOAT in gymnastics, but an ordinary person dealing with a panic attack. She’s a champion and I’m hopeful she will learn from this failure.
Jamaican sprinters, Elaine Thompson-Herah, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson, successfully managed the enormous pressure on the International stage to set an Olympic record and sweep the 100M competition: Gold, Silver and Bronze.
With Simone out, this allowed other American greats to show their stuff. Suni Lee had the same pressure as Simone. She was successful managing her emotions and fear. She’s now the latest Olympic All-Around Champion. The queen is dead; long live the queen. Welcome to the club.
Carissa Moore, Native Hawaiian, won the first ever Olympic Gold in surfing. What a tribute to women and Hawaiians, who invented the sport a hundred years ago. Simone is correct gymnastics is dangerous. Surfing might be more.
Each time Carissa trains, she might hit her head on a submerged rock or reef outcropping. She doesn’t have spotters or safety mats, and Simone doesn’t have to worry about sharks. Carissa managed her fears. True champion!
Logan Martin, Australian, is the first Olympic Champion in BMX Freestyle. Here he is 30 feet in the air above concrete. No margin of error. Somehow he quieted his fears and executed perfectly.
We all get scared. We all suffer overwhelming anxiety at times. There is no shame in falling. The loser is the one who refuses to get back up and try again. Champions win or learn. They persevere, adapt and overcome when facing unbearable odds or a perceived unbeatable adversary.
This is why we honor athletes. This is why they are our role models. And, unfortunately, there is shame in quitting. Never, never quit. Regardless how many times you fall or fail, you never lose as long as you continue to push forward.
In the last analysis, it’s all about doing your best. “Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t make excuses. Just get out there, and whatever you’re doing, do it to the best of your ability. And no one can do more than that.”John Wooden
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