Have you ever heard of the Yips? They are a baseball phenomena I learned about recently while reading John Green's The Anthropocene Reviewed. In it, Green describes the Yips as, "do not seem to be a result of performance anxiety , although anxiety can worse the problem..." and summarizes them as a problem among many sports including tennis and golf that is completely unexplainable.
Green's review of the Yips (learn more about his book here https://thearcher13.wixsite.com/mysite/post/the-anthropocene-reviewed ) is what I thought of when I watched Simone Biles vault at the women's team final in the Olympics.
Basically, the Yips are when, for no reason you are suddenly unable to do the sport in which you have been trained. There is no physiological reason for this that anyone has been able to find. An athlete just suddenly loses "it," that special thing that made them an athlete in the first place. It's a known phenomena, but that doesn't make them any less devastating. In many athletes the Yips never go away, leaving them a normal person who knows they can physically throw a mean curveball, they just can't make that curveball appear in reality.
Today, Simone Biles yipped. It was the team final at the Tokyo Olympics, an Olympics that for which we have waited five years. Team final is the big one, the one that creates the legends like Kerri Strug, and it's the one that most gymnastics federations think the most about when selecting their teams.
Team USA went into the team final in what most considered a strange position. They had placed in second in the qualifying rounds, something that hasn't happened since 2010. This was due to a spectacular performance from their biggest rival, Russia, as well as uncharacteristic mistakes from Jordan Chiles and star of the Olympics Simone Biles.
Simone is on everything right now. She's selling me credit cards, cars, and Ritz crackers. She is the forefront of the advertising for the games themselves. And she has had a couple of bad nights this year. That's generally par for the course in gymnastics, but with COVID restrictions there haven't been many opportunities to compete. And her bad days were outnumbering her good ones.
But Simone on a bad day is still the best gymnast in the world. In 2018 she competed at Worlds while passing a kidney stone. I have had a kidney stone (a small one for about 6 hours on a Shabbos afternoon) and during that time I couldn't walk, or say any words that didn't start with 'F" or "S" much less tumble. Simone fell on vault and beam in that competition and still placed first. She was just that good.
So the team final comes. The eyes of the world are on her. The eyes of those she cares about are far away-no spectators were allowed in Tokyo and her parents were home in Texas. She prepares to do her vault-a 2.5 twisting Yurchenko she's been doing since she was a junior. The hardest vault in that day's team competition.
She runs, rounds off onto the springboard, punches off of the vaulting horse-all perfectly-and then loses her air awareness and falls out of the sky after only competing 1.5 twists. She looked shaken and scared. Somewhere in the sky, she had gotten what gymnasts call "The Twisties" similar to the Yips, a term the gymnastics community coined for when a trained gymnast suddenly forgets how to find herself in the air-a key part of doing gymnastics.
She didn't know if she could get on bars (the next event) and suddenly know how to gymnastics again. Plus, gymnastics is a risky sport, if she had gotten lost at a different point in her vault she may have broken her leg. A different point? Her neck. It is only due to her extreme athletic instincts that she managed to survive that first vault.
So she pulled herself from the competition and cheered her teammates to a silver medal. Russia gave a great performance to earn gold, and the US suffered several more errors, which are totally expected from the women when the star player from the last 8 years suddenly falls out of the sky. Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee went on events they hadn't been prepared to compete and Grace McCallum went right after Simone told them she was leaving the competition. They each did a fine job-particularly Suni Lee.
Simone has been open about her mental health journey since the beginning of her career, when she admitted to seeing a sports psychologist to sharpen her performance. It was actually a super-happy-therapy-solves-all-problems narrative. In 2013, she went to Classics and had a terrible performance, eventually opting to skip vault for safety reasons. She went to a sports psychologist and two months later became national champion over Olympic Gold Medalist Kyla Ross. Then, she went to World Championships and won her first of 5 World Championship Medals in the all around.
Yay! Therapy works! Depression is cured! Gold medals for everyone! We'll never have problems again!
In 2018 Simone came forward as one of the many, many survivors of abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the Team USA doctor for over two decades.
She told us over and over that she was affected by it every day and that some days she could not leave her bed. She told us that she had demons in her head that wouldn't leave and that it was traumatic to receive physical therapy (a must for all elite gymnasts) and to compete for the organization, USAGym, that had knowingly harbored Nassar and others who had allowed him to enact his heinous crimes on hundreds of young women.
But we didn't listen to her, because GOLD MEDALS. MOVE NO ONE HAS DONE BEFORE. GREATEST OF ALL TIME DATING AN NFL PLAYER BUILT A FANCY HOUSE IN HOUSTON HOW CAN SHE BE SAD EVER?
As the media converged on Simone, I also felt like I was hosting a press conference. (Simone, by the way, has made herself available to the media and the public. National Team Coordinator Tom Forster has not.) I am a huge gymnastics fan and was giving commentary to the games on my instagram. I was actually on a plane during this final because I had misjudged the time difference. So, I saw the vault and felt terrified and saw the bars routines that followed. The plane took off, and I paid for terrible wifi so I could make out the beam and floor rotations. I cheered for Russia and Great Britain but my heart and brain were focused on Simone.
On deplaning I had about 30 texts: WHAT HAPPENED?
Then the articles started coming out. Simone should have known earlier and withdrawn. USA Gymnastics should have withdrawn her. Why wasn't an alternate brought in? Did she crack under the pressure? Is she over rated?
I got several texts saying things of the same vein, opinions my friends picked up from the media.
People who aren't in fandom may not understand that fandom is more than obsession. It is love. I dream about Simone Biles and Taylor Swift as much as I dream about my family. They add joy to my life, even if I cannot take selfies with them.
So I was hurt because my girl was hurt. And more than that, I began to take everything in, personally.
Simone is a hero of mine because she continues to be open about depression and about getting athletes more mental health services. I look at Simone and I think "Wow. Everyone loves her. She is the greatest and she has depression and no one cares. Perhaps, if I just vault to the height I need in my everyday activities the people in my life will love me despite my depression."
I know this is a stretch but gymnastics is all about flexibility.
Then Simone fell out of the sky and the world turned on her. She should have given her spot to someone else (BTW this is against the rules there is a strict deadline by which alternates must be submitted.) She should have known earlier that this was going to happen. She's playing the victim to be the darling of the liberal media.
This felt like the world was telling me "have depression, but keep it together when it matters. Otherwise, bring in an alternate because we want to see a good performance."
I recognize I am not a performer and that Simone Biles put herself on a pedestal to be judged.
But the comments from my friends didn't reach Simone Biles, they reached me and for whatever reason they hurt.
Simone could not have known when the Yips/Twisties were going to occur. She could not have stopped herself from being depressed anymore than she could have stopped herself from having brown eyes (though having a governing agency in your sports that cares about sexual abuse is a good start.) Was the media telling her she should never have competed because her depression made her more vulnerable to the Twisties?
I don't know when I am going to have a day when I cannot perform and need an alternate. Perhaps it will happen to me in front of my whole school, like it did in 2013. Luckily, none of my fellow students recognized the clear signs of someone in distress and thought it was a joke. Maybe it will happen like it did in 2018 when I was at the desk at the first day at a new job and I had to take bathroom breaks to have panic attacks throughout the day. Maybe it will happen at the wedding of one of my siblings or at my own wedding, should it happen.
It's terrifying living with depression. It's a time bomb in your head that can explode at any time-even mid air.
Why should that mean the best gymnast on Earth shouldn't try to compete anyway?
If we all lived our lives based on our time bombs, no one would leave their beds. But we want to see people on the street doing their best. We want the top athletes to compete in their sports. And then we need to forgive them when the time bomb goes off.
Some of us look really happy. We post pictures on our instagram about our vacations and our cute dogs and our gym classes. We are funny and bubbly and open about our struggles with depression-Just like Simone. So, like Simone, the impulse is there to go 'Ok, that one did her therapy and now GOLD MEDALS NO PROBLEMS HAPPY ALL THE TIME."
No one is gold medals no problems happy all the time. Depression and therapy is a lifetime battle. And we will all have moments of loss at one moment or another.
And we need to remember that our comments about Peyton Manning and Serena Williams and Lebron James and Simone Biles will most likely not reach them. But they will reach friends and family who hear that time bomb going tick-tock-tick-tock. And will wonder-if my Uncle George thinks Simone should have never gone to the Olympics if there was this risk, does he also think I shouldn't go to the family reunion? Would my friends prefer I didn't travel with them in case I lose it and need an off day?
Yes I took it too personally. But I am also entitled to my feelings. My feelings of love for Simone, recognizing the signs of depression, and the constant, background fear that I will get the emotional twisties.
Simone is an excellent athlete who had a very common ailment in gymnastics that the media didn't like so much because instead of it happening to her ankle it happened to her brain. She may return to the sport and fight through this as she did in 2013 or she may not. She has nothing to prove and I still adore her.
When the line from the media becomes that she should have known about an invisible time bomb it becomes hurtful to those of us with our own timebombs. We know we aren't on the balance beam. But work and dating and family can feel like a balance beam sometimes.
Where will you be when someone in your life falls out of midair? Will you commend them on how they cheer from the sidelines or will you condemn them for a time bomb that they did not plant.
We have a right to judge athletes when we buy tickets and turn our TVs to the channel featuring their performances. But there are unintended consequences to our judgements that can be...twisted.