Osaka Biles Olympics Split

“The twisties,” they call it in gymnastics. I’d never heard the term until Tuesday, but I got a pretty good idea of what it meant from seeing Simone Biles’ face as she tried to finish her first and only vault in Tokyo that evening. A few seconds before Biles came down, the camera caught her staring blankly off to the side—“lost” was how the NBC commentators accurately described her expression. When her feet hit the mat with a thud, she seemed surprised that it had happened so soon, as if she didn’t know exactly where she was in the air.

Biles’ face, and the loss of physical control she seemed to suffer during that vault, reminded me of what it’s like when tennis players are overcome by nerves, or the pressure of the moment, and suddenly can’t make their bodies do what they’ve done millions of times before. Any tennis player who has ever suffered from an extended case of the yips will recognize the terrible psychological spiral that sets in with the twisties, as described by Emily Giambalvo in the Washington Post today:

“After experiencing the twisties once,” she writes, “it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.”

There’s one big difference between the twisties and the yips, though—if you lose control of your body as a gymnast, you can seriously hurt yourself. Anyone who saw how lost Biles looked during her vault, and how hard she came down on the mat, should understand why she felt the need to withdraw from the team competition—and especially from her high-flying floor routine—on Tuesday.

“I just don't trust myself as much as I used to,” said Biles, whose performances in 2021 have come with more lapses and imperfections than they once did. “I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun.”

“After experiencing the twisties once,” Emily Giambalvo wrote in the Washington Post, “it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.”

“After experiencing the twisties once,” Emily Giambalvo wrote in the Washington Post, “it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.”

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Not everyone understands Biles’ decision, of course. She has been met with the same mix of scorn and praise that Naomi Osaka received when she pulled out of Roland Garros and skipped Wimbledon for mental-health reasons earlier this summer. The 23-year-old Osaka and the 24-year-old Biles have much in common. Both are women of color who compete in largely individual sports, and who have been successful enough to become the faces of those sports. Both have been outspoken about issues within their professions, and about safeguarding their health. They may have been the two highest-profile athletes at the start of these Games: Osaka lit the torch during the opening ceremony, and Biles was expected to cap off her career as the greatest gymnast ever this week.

But like Biles, Osaka’s Olympics ended disappointingly early, with a 6-1, 6-4 second-round defeat to Marketa Vondrousova. Rather than the twisties, or even the yips, Osaka seemed to be suffering mostly from rust in her loss. This was her first event since May, and she was down a double break in a matter of minutes against Vondrousova. Osaka looked to be a half-step late in setting up for her shots, and she never found an answer for Vondrousova’s dropper. Along with rust, though, there was the special pressure that came with playing in her home Games. Osaka had targeted Tokyo for years, she had lit the torch, she was playing on her favorite surface, and she was the highest seed left in the draw.

“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,’ Osaka said. “I think it’s maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and for the first year [it] was a bit much. I think I’m glad with how I played, with taking that break that I had.

“I feel like my attitude wasn’t that great because I don’t really know how to cope with that pressure so that’s the best that I could have done in this situation.”

Osaka lit the torch during the opening ceremony, and Biles was expected to cap off her career as the greatest gymnast ever this week.

Osaka lit the torch during the opening ceremony, and Biles was expected to cap off her career as the greatest gymnast ever this week.

Osaka and Biles have been, and will be, criticized for not staying quiet about their anxieties, and not fighting through them at any cost. Traditionally, we want athletes to rise above their limitations and show us how much the body and spirit can endure. We want our superstars to be superhuman. But by stepping back, and being honest about why, Osaka and Biles have shown us something equally important: That superstar athletes are human, too. That, like us, they can’t always ignore their anxieties, or the other imperfections and limitations that make them human.

This isn’t as much fun, obviously, as seeing a world-record broken, or a perfect score achieved, or a Cinderella story come true, or four years of hard work rewarded with a gold medal. But Osaka and Biles have made us understand again how much athletes go through to inspire us and keep us entertained. Biles has reminded us of the dangers of gymnastics, and Osaka of the lonely pressures of tennis. Every sports fan should value having that knowledge. Only when we remember that there’s a person underneath every superstar can we properly appreciate what they go through to succeed.