On July 27, after a sub-par vault by her standards, Simone Biles knew her mind was not playing along. She had a decision to make. Either persevere like she had always done— she had previously won events for her country with broken toes and a kidney stone—or step aside and let her teammates pursue gold. She chose the latter.
For all the emotional turmoil she was going through, Biles was quite pragmatic at the press conference later in the day. She said she knew “mental’s not there” and she did not want to “risk the team a medal because of her screw-ups”.
“Biles admitted to getting a ‘bit of the twisties’,” says Dr Swaroop Savanur, mental conditioning and peak performance coach with the Punjab Kings IPL team. “This is when the build-up of pressure becomes so intense that the player has a biophysical manifestation of that stress and there is an interruption in the signals that the brain sends to the muscles; this results in a lack of muscular coordination. In gymnastics, even a small delayed reaction can have disastrous consequences. And when that plays in your mind, there is no way a gymnast can pull off a performance at that level.”
There is another harmless-sounding term called the ‘yips’ in golf. “It’s a similar physical reaction to pressure,” says Savanur, “and the player cannot even hold the golf club.” But, if Rory Mcllroy has the yips and still plays, he might miss a putt; if Biles springs off the vault with a muddled mind, she could break her spine.
To understand what Biles is going through, it is crucial to differentiate between mental health issues and the general pressure of performing under bright lights. “Game stress is just one factor leading to depression, insomnia etc,” says Savanur. “Every athlete will feel [performance anxiety] and could fail because of it, but that doesn’t mean he or she has a mental health issue. It is dangerous if this clarity is not there.”
“Choking” might be part of it, but the issues athletes like Biles have, or are facing, builds up over years. Biles, specifically, has had a tough life. In a 2019 interview with actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas—after news of team doctor Larry Nassar having sexually abused her and many others broke—Biles said, “I was sleeping all the time because it’s the closest thing to death.”
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