Simone Biles, ‘twisties’ and ‘yips’
By John Millen
As the Olympics end today, one of the enduring stories will be that of star gymnast Simone Biles.
She experienced a problem in her first vault and subsequently withdrew from several events before emerging to win a bronze medal in an individual event.
Biles was subject to criticism and praise for her decisions, variously being called a “quitter,” a “loser” and a “hero” on social and mainstream media. She became a character in the U.S. social/political wars.
She didn’t ask to be any of these things. What was lost in all of this posturing was Biles experienced something that is uniquely human, inexplicable and often frightening.
It can be a plague for high performers not only in sports but in business and life.
The twisties and the yips
As Biles was tumbling through the air to execute several somersaults, she was suddenly lost in space. The term Biles and other gymnasts use to describe this phenomenon is the “twisties.”
I had never heard the term “twisties” before but I instinctively understood the concept. In business and life there are moments of performance anxiety and unexplainable misfires.
For gymnasts, those misfires occur while flying through the air and might result in injury or even paralysis.
As a golfer, I’m familiar with twisties by a different name, the “yips. “
You need only check this Wikipedia post about the “yips,” which includes Biles’ recent performance, to see how this mental break pervades most sports. From professional golfers who miss 6-inch putts to professionals in baseball, cricket, tennis and others.
We tend to think of the mind and body as separate, but at moments like these, we realize they are inseparable.
It’s why I tell my friends and clients that “golf is 95 percent mental,” and they shake their heads and agree, and then I add “and five percent mental.”
I have a close friend, a solid golfer I’ve played with for years, who is currently lost in the game and has stored his clubs for the past six months. Every attempt to hit balls on the range or on a course is full of misfires. It’s like he never played the game before.
I’ve been there too. I had developed a shank, where the ball suddenly darts off to the right. Thankfully, I’ve managed to reign it in, but it was as much a psychological process as it was physical.
My example is more mundane than gymnastics since it doesn’t involve physical injury or paralysis. But the mere stroke of a golf ball may produce the same angst and bewilderment about the functions of our minds.
In business, I’ve seen this with clients, including CEOs and other senior leaders who seem perfectly fine on the surface but suffer inside. This is because anxiety is situational so their lapses may appear unexpectedly and in peculiar ways.
For example, I have a woman CEO client who is a great speaker to large audiences and awesome one-on-one. But when talking to a small group of, say, 12 people she would feel deep anxiety, get short of breath and start to freeze up.
It’s a real problem because that’s the size of her board of directors. Why does this happen? There’s no rational explanation. She knows intellectually that she’s capable of handling this size group, but her mind and body still respond with anxiety.
The good news is that after working together for 18 months she is in a solid comfort zone.
I’ll wager that you’ve experienced something similar in your life, perhaps a completely blank mind during a presentation. It happens.
While there’s no easy answer to this complex problem, I want to share a few tips for easing your path forward:
1. Realize you’re not alone
I can tell you from working intimately with hundreds of leaders and entrepreneurs that we all experience some form of a mental misfire. It means you’re human.
2. Face your fears
Our natural tendency is to withdraw from the activity that created our mental and physical lapse. But that only reinforces the fear and the sense that we can achieve our normal state.
Even if you need to move in increments it’s best to face your fears and take small steps forward. Your amygdala, the fight or flight part of your brain, will resist. Thinking it is keeping you safe from harm the amygdala will turn up your anxiety. Breathing and movement will help you to calm those nerves. This takes courage but when you get to the other side you have made progress.
3. Create a routine
Scientists say that some 40 percent of our actions, like driving a car, are powered by mental routines, which are designed to conserve brain energy.
We find comfort in routines. It’s why I’m such an advocate for the planning and rehearsal of presentations by my clients. Establish your own routines for the activity that might challenge you with misfires. Consistently stay with the process you develop.
4. Reward yourself for small wins
Nothing will encode new, positive habits more than small wins and rewards. When you make a move in the right direction give yourself an instant reward. It doesn’t have to be major.
Just an example: If your anxiety is related to having a tough conversation, put it on the schedule and eat a piece of chocolate. Write an outline of what you’ll cover in the talk, eat a chocolate. Schedule the talk with the person, eat several chocolates.
I know it might sound silly, like Pavlovian dog training, but it’s how we operate as human beings.
5. Be patient with yourself
In my experience high achievers have high standards, but also a loud critical voice inside that can be unsparingly harsh.
I just pulled an old book off of my shelf, Zen Golf, Mastering the Mental Game. The author, Dr. Joe Parent, is talking about golf but this applies to our lives:
“If you make a swing that falls short of perfect (for you), don’t get down on yourself or try to fix your swing. Instead, direct your awareness to reflect on what might have interfered….Don’t change your swing, change your mind. Clear the interference, then trust your own perfect swing, and it will give you the most consistent results.”
That’s the answer. If you develop something like the twisties or the yips in your life, work on clearing your mind. Because, remember, life is 95 percent mental…and five percent mental.