The Twisties & the Yips
Simone Biles has four gymnastic skills named after her. She's one of the most decorated Olympians of all time. Any country. Any sport.
Before the Tokyo games, her opponents acknowledged they were all basically competing for silver and bronze in 2021. Then, in the preliminary of the vault, Biles landed awkwardly and tripped off the mat. On the beam, she stumbled uncharacteristically on her dismount. In the floor exercise, she bounced out of bounds.
When talk emerged that Biles was suffering from the twisties, every gymnast there understood. The twisties, as you've probably heard by now, is a mysterious phenomenon? an aerial disorientation? in which a gymnast's brain loses track of both body position and where the ground is. Biles was getting, as she said, ?lost in the air.?
?It's almost like your superpowers were stripped away from you,? Biles? friend Rachel Moore told Sports Illustrated, making the point that a gymnast can't just play through this.
Biles removed herself from the team competition, not just for her own well-being, but so her teammates might have a chance at securing a team medal, which they did, winning silver. Over the next few days, she then withdrew from the individual events but maintained hope she might still compete in the final one?the balance beam. Scrapping her normal tumbling, twisting dismount, she practiced a straight flip off the beam instead, one during which she could hold her legs to avoid pulling to one side or the other.
Having received plaudits from some, but tremendous criticism from others, she soon took a deep breath and leapt 1.25 meters onto the 10 centimeter wide balance beam in front of a world-wide audience and performed, if not the most polished performance of her storied career, certainly her most courageous. She won bronze.
In the third inning of Game One of the National League Divisional Playoffs in the fall of 2000, Rick Ankiel, the St. Louis Cardinals 21-year-old phenom heralded for his pinpoint control on the mound, walked four batters, throwing five balls to the backstop in the span of just 25 pitches in a nationally televised game. ?I unraveled,? he said. Ankiel had lost all feel for the ball and had no idea anymore where it might go as it left his hand. Demoted to the minors, he was eventually sent all the way down to the rookie league.
Most baseball players and golfers call it the yips. Others call it the thing or the monster. But most don't want to talk about it at all. ?The anxiety's so powerful,? Ankiel recounted. ?You can't hide.? After a year of struggling, he changed positions, toiling in the low minors for six years as an outfielder in places like Johnson City, Tennessee, and Peoria, Illinois, before, to everyone's surprise, he returned to the Cardinals as a solid right fielder in 2007.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis takes up the mystery of our psychologies--how God, knowing how they work, might take them into account, and how we, though we don't know how they work,perhaps should. ?When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats,? Lewis wrote, ?forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it's quite possible that in God's eyes he's shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the Victorian Cross.?
Lewis is saying the moral quality of courage is hard to measure without taking our often-hidden psychologies into account. We?re impressed with Rick Ankiel's later success as a player because we know he had the yips and fought his way back. For all of her previous gold medals, we?re impressed by Simone Biles? bronze in Tokyo because we know she overcame the twisties to perform on the balance beam.
What all this suggests is that we likely overlook the triumph of courage in others all the time. For instance, it's incredibly brave when a shy kid takes a deep breath and goes into his kindergarten class for the very first time or when someone knows they are suffering from cognitive impairment but still comes to church. There's a dose of heroism in taking a vaccine when you?re deathly afraid of needles or in boarding a plane to go see a relative when you?re terribly afraid to fly. There's fortitude that goes uncelebrated in the daily abstinence of those with deep addictions and courage overlooked when those afraid of public speaking ask a question in a meeting.
Perhaps we ought to recognize that, to a distressing degree, we just don't have the ability to know what others are dealing with and double-down on grace in the face of the data we don't have.
May I recognize the strange asymmetry in how courage works.