Simone Biles, the Twisties, and mental skill training


coaches corner

Simone Biles has started a dialog about mental health and athletics and that’s great. The magnitude of that discussion overshadows an interesting piece of the mental performance puzzle that is near and dear to my heart as a sports psych doc.

What she is experiencing applies to all levels of athlete, across all sports, for consistent, repeatable performance. I write about this subject often, and there are links in the body of this post that give a deeper dive. I hope when you are done you will explore them to get a better understanding!

The Twisties

I read an article from the Washington Post about Simone Biles case of the twisties and the failure of her “muscle memory.”

Pet peeve alert:

Muscle memory isn’t really a thing.

This is an example of how little people know about mental skills and performance. What it refers to is automation in the brain. Practicing something lines up neurons in a way that best facilitates repeating the action. The neural links get stronger, set, and become automatic behaviors. We store them in long-term memory and the wait to fire. Perhaps that’s where the misnomer “muscle memory” comes from, but I am digressing.

If you throw a ball with your dominant hand, there isn’t much thought required. There are well practiced chains of neurons that fire off the automatic behavior. If you throw a ball with your nondominant hand, things get whacky. To even stand a chance of being successful, you really have to think about the components of the motion and what hand and foot go where. There are not fine-tuned clusters of neurons and automatic behaviors to rely on.

Thinking is the enemy of automatic behaviors and high performance. When an athlete loses the connection to the automatic behavior, the processes come unlinked. They have to think about the actions required for performance, and they are in trouble.

This is especially true for Simone Biles because she is going 400 miles per hour, flipping 67 times in the air and trying to land on her feet. In addition to thinking about the individual components of complicated routines, other thoughts creep in. Things like, what if I land on my head, for instance. Simone Biles as one of the best ever at her sport and has had access to top level mental skills training. Even she can come unlinked.

Mental skills training and YOUR athlete.

Athletes at every level benefit from mental skills training and deliberate practice. Every round house kick, pitch, or serve needs a programmed cluster of neurons to be its best.

The myth of the natural is just that, a myth. Naturals might have gifts that get them more attention from coaches, but that only serves to get them more necessary and quality reps and feedback. The more natural a player is, the more likely that when they hit a wall they will be ill-equipped mentally.

For every level of athlete, mental breakdown is the same. The more pressure there is to perform, the higher the tendency for an athlete to start thinking. They think about specific components of an action, revert to simple instructions about how to do them, and they move away from automation.

Through mental skills training, the point at which an athlete fails mentally (if they fail at all) is pushed way farther out. If it is reached, there are trainable skills to overcome it and use it as a way to sharpen performance.

In baseball, when a pitcher comes unlinked, we say they can’t hit the broad side of a barn. In golf, it’s called the yips. In gymnastics it’s the twisties. Each sport has a euphemism for losing the ability to perform automated behaviors. It’s part of sports, but it is improvable and manageable. There are trainable skills to keep it at bay, push it way down the road, and negotiate it if and when it happens.

Holla’ I’d love to help teach you how! Dr. J

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