When Simone Biles withdrew from the team gymnastics competition after one event, there were two reactions: empathy on the one hand and proclamations that she was “weak” and “letting down her teammates” on the other. The latter are wrong. At best they are ignorant, at worst full of malice. It is not just my opinion that they are wrong, it is what the latest performance science tells us. Let me explain.
What Actually Happened?
First, go watch her vault. She performed 1.5 turns instead of the full 2.5 and then barely landed on her feet.
What happened? She lost track of where she was in the air. She suffered from a perception-action disconnect. She was flipping through the air, and lost all sense of where she was and where the ground was. That is downright scary and dangerous. It is also not her fault.
If you want to know what a perception-action disconnection feels like, go play pin the tail on the donkey. Spin around a bunch of times and then try to walk. Thanks to a bit of vertigo, you stumble around, unable to walk in a straight line. Your body’s movement and the feedback it’s getting back are distorted. Where your brain thinks your arm or leg is and how it should move is disorientated.
Walking is among the simplest, most ingrained activities there is; but when we disconnect our perception and action linkage, even that becomes difficult. Now imagine flipping through the air, spinning, and turning. And you can see why I said it is downright dangerous.
In gymnastics they call this experience the ‘twisties.’ Its close cousin in other sports is called the yips. This occurs when a seemingly simple task, such as tossing a baseball from 2nd base to 1st base becomes incredibly difficult. While slightly different than the twisties, those who experience the yips have the same perception-action disconnection.
Normally, when an elite athlete performs a task they’ve done thousands of times, it’s a smooth and inherent process. They don’t have to think about every step of the task. It’s second nature. Just like when you or I go for a walk, we don’t have to think about every way our thighs, calves, and arms move. It just happens. Instead of worrying about the action, we just get to sit back and listen to the feedback coming from our bodies to our brains. If a muscle is tight or our legs start to burn due to fatigue, that’s a signal something is off. When you experience this disconnection, it’s as if that loop gets blocked. The smooth ingrained movement becomes segmented and disjointed. It is Like a 5-year-old learning how to throw a baseball for the first time. When the feedback becomes distorted, it doesn’t match what you are accustomed to or expecting. It’s an extreme version of going out for your normal easy jog, only instead of easy, your heart rate is soaring, your legs feel like lead, and every step is painful. T
What causes this problem? There are quite a few theories, but one theory is that it’s a protective mechanism. When faced with extreme pressure or stress, the brain interprets it as trauma and chooses to dissociate. It ‘shuts down’ as a way to cope and protect.
If you think this is a sign of weakness, then consider that it’s not just athletes who suffer from it, the special forces do too. On the battlefield, they experience it as dissociation, an extreme fog of war, where their senses become distorted. Pressure and stress distort, even those who spend years training specifically for it.
The way through this perception-action disconnection isn’t to force things. It’s not to push through. That backfires. It makes matters worse. For the past three years, I spent researching and talking to the world’s best performers about how to keep their mind steady amidst the chaos for my book Do Hard Things. When we experience this disconnection, our brain tries to zoom in, to rely on step-by-step movement. Forcing pushes us further into that mode, which leads to overthinking and panic over why your body isn’t cooperating. Imagine for a second you lost the ability to do something like write or even walk. Yelling at someone to just push through isn’t going to help.
What you have to try to do is figure out how to zoom back out, get your ingrained motor patterns working again, and re-establish the bond between perception and action. That’s a very difficult task in the moment, especially with the world watching and your team and country relying on you.
Pushing through a perception-action disconnection when you are flipping through the air isn’t tough. It’s dumb. It risks serious injury. And regardless of what the bros say, you can’t just snap your fingers or “calm down” to re-establish that connection.
This whole discourse raises a larger and more important issue, one that I tackle in Do Hard Things. As a society, we have a misunderstanding of what toughness is. It is NOT gritting your teeth, pushing through everything. It’s not your middle school football coach screaming at you. It’s having the space to choose, despite mounting pressure, stress, and fatigue. Toughness is in the decision.
And sometimes that decision is to “quit.” Take the sport of free diving. On one breath you dive down as far as you can go, trying to reach a record or claim a win for the deepest dive. But, reaching the record is only half the journey, you also have to make it back to the surface without blacking out. In free diving, toughness is being self-aware to turn around, even if the record is within sight, because you are keenly aware that you have just enough air to make it to the surface. Being a fool is pressing forward for the “record” only to risk your life and blacking out, which would disqualify you from the record anyways.
Toughness is about being able to make that decision. Sometimes it is to persist, other times it is to quit.
When it comes to Biles decision to not compete, she displayed real toughness. For someone who has won a national title while having broken toes, won a world championship while having kidney stones, who was abused in her own sport, fought her sports governing body, and put US gymnastics on her back to carry them to new heights, there should be no doubt she wanted to help her teammates capture Olympic Gold. She waited five years for another shot to do so.
But toughness is about self-awareness so you can make the right decision. And if the greatest gymnast in history decides to withdraw because her body is failing to do what it’s been ingrained to, I trust her judgment.