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Simone Biles dropped out of the finals of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games due to experiencing 'twisties'. I understand that this is some kind of mental phenomenon that would prevent her from competing.

What is this mental phenomenon and how does this affect a gymnast like Simone Biles during and after a competition? How long does this phenomenon last?

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In general, an experienced gymnast will be perfectly aware of how they are positioned in space during any vault, flip or twist. They learn to feel in which direction the floor is, and how far they are from it.

"Twisties" is when you lose that sensation for whatever reason. Some reasons are

  • you did a familiar move, but with an unfamiliar outcome
  • you rotated slower or faster than you're used to, and lost your sense of direction
  • you saw something you didn't expect to see, and now you're unsure of which direction you saw it in

Any and all of these reasons can give you the "twisties", and make your landing highly dubious.

It's also worth mentioning that the twisties can occur for other sports and activities as well. One that comes to mind immediately is skydiving. An inexperienced skydiver doing a solo jump can end up with relentless rotations and lose their sense of direction, and thus their cue to open the parachute.

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    And, of course, that positioning is extremely important because just a quarter to a half of a twist difference is the difference between landing on your feet and landing on your head, c.f. Elena Mukhina and her failed Thomas salto. Jul 29 at 13:14
  • @SeanDuggan - Oof, yeah. The term "full scorpion" also comes to mind.
    – Alec
    Jul 29 at 13:21
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Alec's answer covers how it manifests, but it is commonly caused by things such as stress and PTSD, as this article from a former competitive gymnast describes (though it arguably also assumes quite a lot about Biles' state of mind)

There are many causes, but one of the most common is stress or PTSD, the symptoms of which Simone was starting to display over the last several days, not only in the way she overcooked her routines in the qualifying rounds, but also in her texts and Instagram messages.

This is where I blame myself, the media, our expectations, our projections, and so on for Simone’s sudden onset.

As an insider, I’m well aware of the insane amount of pressure being applied to her. Even the scandal-ridden selection of the women’s Olympic gymnastics team was Simone-centric; the vanity being that it didn’t matter which of our superlative athletes were ultimately placed on the team, since Simone would save the day, regardless.

As for how long it can last - some people recover from it, some are plagued by it for the rest of their career:

I also suffered from the twisties, one time landing on the back of my neck during a multiple flipping skill as a result. That experience directly and adversely impacted the rest of my career. I was constantly petrified, constantly doubting myself.

Doubt is the leading cause of injury in gymnastics and I have a dozen surgical scars to show for mine. If Simone, a national treasure, enters the remainder of the competition with doubts, and is injured, that injury is on all our shoulders for the reasons I’ve stated above.

So I don't think there's a typical timeframe for recovery.

The wikipedia article on The Yips, most commonly known from golfing, also describes manifestations of similar issues in other sports.

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    Unlike golf and most other sports in which the term yips is used, gymnastics is a sport in which under- (or over-)committing to a move because of disorientation or fear of it, nerves, hesitation etc. is physically dangerous, though the loss of precision often described by the yips clearly matters a lot to both the risk and the points. Some athletics events and many adventure sports share this extra hazard
    – Chris H
    Jul 30 at 8:27
  • I guess this word also applies in skateboarding and other sports. I remember once I was doing something quite dangerous on my skateboard but I would have been fine if I had totally committed to it. Doubt entered my mind at the crucial moment, now I have a scar on my arm to show for it anyway.
    – Tom
    Jul 31 at 21:50

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