“Having a little bit of the twisties,” said Simone Biles, the world’s best gymnast, explaining her decision July 27 to pull out of two Olympic finals in the Tokyo Olympics. For most of us non-gymnasts, twisties was a new term that prompted multiple explainers: It’s a mental block, it’s a sudden failure of muscle memory, it’s dangerous, it can even be deadly, especially when you’re attempting a skill called an Amanar, which is “a roundoff onto springboard, back handspring onto vaulting platform and into 2½ twists in a back layout salto off the table,” according to a Wikipedia entry. I get the twisties just reading those words.
Twister (1996). “Twister” has been used in the U.S. since the late 19th century to refer to a tornado or cyclone.
Everything I’ve read about the twisties indicates that the term is well known in the gymnastics world, but I haven’t yet found out when it was first used, or who coined it (if there was indeed a single coiner). Maybe one of you smart readers will help me out.
I did learn that twist is a pretty old word, but not super-old, as English words go: both verb and noun can be traced back to the mid-14th century. Like many English words that begin with tw-, twist originally had a connection to two-ness: it first meant “to divide into branches” and, by the 16th century, “to entwine.” (“To twist someone’s arm”—to persuade someone to do something—is surprisingly recent: the OED’s earliest citation is from 1953.)
I also learned that there are equivalent terms in other fields, although none with the degree of peril that accompanies twisties. (Several gymnasts have been paralyzed after being coerced into ignoring brain/body warnings that a move was not going to work for them that day.) Golfers have the yips, a term that goes back to the early 1960s and was popularized by the Scottish-American golfer Tommy Armour (1895-1968), whose name is now attached to a brand of golf clubs. Doctors say the yips are a form of focal dystonia, a brain condition that causes muscle contractions; the term has been generalized to refer to any sudden loss of skill in an experienced athlete. In baseball, the condition is sometimes called “Steve Blass disease,” after the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who retired in 1974 after suddenly losing his pitching ability. Archers are subject to target panic; darts players can suffer dartitis.
And in the corporate world, or even in domestic decision-making, who has not encountered paralysis by analysis? I once had a CEO client who suffered horribly from this condition. I had to do some arm-twisting to guide him to a decision.
Simone Biles twisting in mid-vault at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Getty/Martin Bureau via France24.com
I’ve never done gymnastics. I’ve always had problems with balance and proprioception—possibly because of a lot of childhood ear infections—and cartwheels and pirouettes were completely beyond me. But I’ve had my own small experience with the twisties.
When I was swimming regularly with a masters team, I was determined to learn flip turns. Almost everyone else managed to smack out turns with no effort, but it took me years of watching videos and practicing—and a couple of sessions with a sports psychologist—to overcome the paralysis that seized my brain every time I reached the wall. One day, at last, my brain and body finally synced up, and I got it. I went on to do flip turns regularly and happily, in workouts and in competition, for the next few months. Then, at workout one day, my well-intentioned coach (not the sports psychologist) offered a suggestion to fine-tune my technique, and as soon as I tried to follow her suggestion, bam: I immediately and completely lost the skill I’d worked so hard to master. I’d reach the wall, tuck my chin to initiate the turn, and freeze. I had no idea what to do with the rest of my body, no sense of where I was in space. The best I could manage from that day forward was an off-center flop—a twisty simulacrum of the correct form.
For the last 17 months I’ve been doing all my swimming in San Francisco Bay, where there are no walls, no lane lines, and no flip turns. Someday I imagine I’ll return to a pool, however, and I wonder: Will my dormant flip-turn ability be revived after the hiatus? Or will I need to accept that I have a permanent case of the twisties?