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What Simone Biles can teach us about overcoming mental blocks

3 tools to beat your twisties

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Simone Biles famously (and courageously) withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics after acknowledging the gymnastics-equivalent of the yips known as the "twisties."

Stepping away from that level of competition - right before the biggest moment - takes guts. Of course, there's a tremendous risk to vaulting and not being confident or convicted in your performance. A risk of injury or of taking a spot from someone else who can deliver. And, if you followed any of the heat she took afterward, you know it took a different level of fortitude to ignore the noise and focus on getting back to training.

We can all learn from Simone's process of getting back into the game.

Behind the Twisties

Simone said that a big part of her experience of the twisties was the stress and anxiety of the games.

It was the amount of pressure she faced getting ready to perform.

"I have been to the gym and did a little bit of working out. It's frustrating because I can do everything again. I don't know ... the stress, anxiety, the build-up or whatever happened, happened."

Simone Biles

Even outside observers noted how different Biles seemed. She was having a hard time (like any of us would) balancing the expectations of the quadrennial and delivering at the level she was accustomed to.

When elite athletes get the "twisties", or what's more commonly known as the yips, the data suggests that what's really going on is their mind wandering toward irrelevant distractions. Those distractions interfere with the trained automaticity of the movements these athletes have developed. The end result is difficulty executing with the technical level of precision they've trained. For most elite athletes, this means massive underperformance.

It looks like being disrupted mid-movement. For a gymnast, that could literally mean being lost in mid-air.

Once this happens, athletes start to fear it happening again. They worry that they won't be able to regain their form or trust their brains and bodies. 

In these instances, the only way out is through.

Beating the Yips

Through is hard. Getting past the hurdles, internally and externally, and back to performance takes a serious dedication to not only figuring out what went wrong but also solving that problem as quickly as possible. We can all learn from Biles' comeback about what it means to beat the yips.

Get back to it

The first thing Simone did was get back in the gym.

In fact, right after she withdrew, her coach had her back in the gym the next day, working on the fundamentals of her sport. It all came back to her so quickly that Biles ended up being frustrated that she withdrew in the first place. It's like her body knew what to do.

What works best about getting right back to it is a principle psychologists call exposure.

When you're worried about something, the best thing you can do is move towards it. Now, of course, this precludes moving toward true imminent danger or death. But in the case of something like gymnastics, the brain might mistake twisting on a beam as a life-or-death situation. It's trying to protect you. In doing so, it causes your muscles to tense up, your attention to drift, and your performance to decline.

With exposure, you get right back into the thick of what you're most afraid of doing. You directly fight against what your brain thinks is going on, to help yourself have a more accurate picture of what the situation is really all about/

By getting yourself exposed to that fear, your brain remodels itself to better account for the reality of your situation. The beam for Biles is something she's used to, not something she needs to avoid. By getting back to training as quickly as possible, she prevents a cycle of avoidance from building up.

With just a few days of practice, she is back to her normal self, ready to go.

Reignite the fire

The second part of Biles' recovery involved rediscovering her love of gymnastics and her purpose.

She turned her twisties into a teaching example for young gymnasts, a group she's proud to represent. She practiced in a quiet gym with just her coaches so she could reconnect to the feeling of training and performance. She focused on connecting with her teammates and supporting her team, instead of the fact that she wasn't competing.

These action steps helped her to shift her focus from the noise about her withdrawal to what participating in gymnastics and the Olympics is all about.

When we're suffering from our own version of the twisties, we tend to first grip tighter, getting frustrated with ourselves and our underperformance. We lose sight of what all the work is for and berate ourselves for not being good enough. This can create a vicious cycle over time, making the sport less and less enjoyable until we burn out or quit altogether.

The first rule, though, of stopping the yips is to "stop the bleeding." You need to not grip tighter but to let go. Letting go is easiest when you tap back into why you started in the first place, centering yourself on something meaningful instead of the latest mistake.

When you reignite your passion, it's easier for the rest of your skill to flow naturally.

Trust your training

I mentioned earlier that Simone started back with the fundamentals. That matters a lot because it allowed her to quickly reconnect with the basics of what makes her excellent and the skills she's mastered.  Seeing herself do what she does best built a quick confidence that allowed her to get back to the training she was used to.

In my view, this takes a tremendous amount of trust. But it's the right thing to do.

Biles didn't go straight into the gym and start pounding at the skills she wasn't sure of. Instead, she relied on her long history of success and her strong technical foundation to help her recover. In essence, she trusted that the work she put in before removing herself from the competition was still relevant and that all that training could be easily recovered and improved to get her back to the game quickly.

When we start to struggle, we start to question ourselves. We wonder if we've done the right things or if we have what it takes to succeed. Oftentimes, though well-intentioned, we go back to the drawing board after throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We move ourselves back to square 0.

The twisties aren't a sign you need to start over, though. They're a sign that something is interfering with your ability to naturally execute. Your job isn't to change your execution, but to remove the obstacle interfering so your execution can flow naturally. That means trusting the work you've put in to date and using your energy to solve the obstacle instead.

Skills you can use

We can all learn something from Biles' path back to peak performance. Though not all of us will face the yips or twisties to a point where we can't physically perform, most of us will experience a rough streak of days where we just don't feel like ourselves. In those instances, here's what we can do:

  • Get back to work. You don't need to drive yourself into the ground but don't avoid practicing. Just get back to what you need to be doing.

  • Find your purpose. When things get hard, remind yourself of why you're doing what you're doing. Tapping back into that motivation can help you find some joy again in the difficulty.

  • Focus on fundamentals. I mentioned earlier that rule one of beating the yips is "stop the bleeding." Rule 2 is "back to basics." In most instances, performance isn't complicated - but as we start making mistakes, we tend to first go for complex solutions. In nearly every case, we'd be better off returning to the simplicity of the task at hand.

  • Watch your self-talk. I don't know many people who help themselves by calling themselves names after a failure. If you find yourself beating yourself up, take a step back. Chances are that self-talk is only harming you, driving you further into a place of frustration. Instead, try to use your self-talk to promote energy and confidence.

  • Reflect on past success. Like Simone, chances are you've succeeded in the past. Take a moment to reflect on why that is, and what allowed you to get there. If you can tap into past success, you can rebuild your confidence quickly and get back after it.

Ultimately, science shows that the yips for high performers come about when they're spending too much time on thoughts unrelated to the task at hand. When we're distracted, we choke. In the case of Biles, her yips were a function of the anxiety and pressure she felt to perform at the games. For high performers in other industries, it might be the fear of being judged or thoughts about mistakes you've made. In any case, your best bet is the same thing - let it go, and be present.

From there, you can find flow and get back to what you do best in no time.

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