CPAT

Stay Informed

Simone Biles Spotlights the ‘Twisties’ and Why Mental Health Matters

August 2, 2021
Healthline
By Julia Ries

  • Gymnast Simone Biles has demonstrated that it’s OK not to be OK.
  • Biles had developed the “twisties” — a sensation gymnasts can develop where they lose their sense of control in the air. Fear or pressure often trigger it.
  • By putting her mental health first, Biles has shown the world that mental health is a cornerstone of our overall well-being.

Simone Biles dominated headlines this week after she withdrew from the Olympic women’s gymnastics team final and then the all-around competition.

Today, Biles announced she will participate in the final gymnastics competition on the balance beam.

Originally, gymnastics officials announced that Biles was withdrawing from the competition for a medical reason, but the gymnast later clarified she was taking a step back to prioritize her mental health.

Biles, who is known for her rare ability to flip through the air and land on her feet, had developed the “twisties” — a sensation gymnasts can develop where they lose their sense of control in the air. Fear or pressure often trigger it.

Biles is so technically advanced as a gymnast that an inability to focus and to lose her sense of control in the air could lead to devastating consequences if she competes and lands in an unsafe manner.

Last month, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka similarly stepped out of the French Open and Wimbledon to take care of her mental health.

By putting their mental health needs first, Biles and Osaka have shown the world that physical injuries aren’t the only cornerstone of health.

Taking care of your mental health is just as important, if not more.

Joe Galasso, PsyD, a clinical psychologist as well as founding partner and CEO of Baker Street Behavioral Health, said there’s something particularly buoying about this movement.

“One, the bravery on display is profound, and two, the stigma is being eradicated,” Galasso told Healthline.

Breaking down the stigma of mental health

In our society, there’s historically been a harsh stigma attached to mental health.

According to Rebecca Busanich, PhD, an associate professor of exercise and sport studies at St. Catherine University, all kinds of ugly labels have been placed on mental health conditions — especially in the world of elite sports.

People with mental health conditions have been falsely framed “as crazy or weak, or overly emotional, sensitive, and soft, or lacking a certain toughness or will,” Busanich said.

As a result, many people try to manage in silence, afraid to open up about their mental health experiences and reach out for help — especially when they need it the most.

“We are at a pivotal moment in history that people are not only disclosing their struggles with mental illness, but the pathways to treatment are being shared and people are learning that illnesses like anxiety and depression are treatable,” Galasso said.

How Biles and Osaka can help change the narrative

So many young people look up to athletes like Biles and Osaka.

Biles “is one of the strongest and bravest athletes in the world, male or female. Not to mention the odds that have been stacked against her in life, being a young woman of color and overcoming so many barriers in her life to get to where she is,” Busanich said.

By making the decision to prioritize her mental health, experts point out Biles has demonstrated that it’s OK to be vulnerable, that it’s OK not to be OK.

Biles has shown what it looks like to admit you’re struggling, acknowledge what you need, and give yourself the time and space to heal.

By putting their mental health needs first, Biles and Osaka have already brought immeasurable awareness to mental health.

“Perhaps this leads to some important dinnertime conversations across the country this week, where people finally open up and become vulnerable about their own experiences,” Busanich said.

In the very least, by further normalizing mental health needs, Biles and Osaka are helping erase the fear and stigma that comes with talking about mental health issues.

“All the fears and stigmas surrounding mental health will fade away as we realize that every single one of us, as human beings, has experienced negative mental health at least once in our lives — in the same way that we have all been sick, or experienced injury, at different times across our life,” Busanich said.

Why their actions matter now more than ever

Biles’ and Osaka’s actions have come at a time when millions of people across the globe are battling with mental health at home as a result of the pandemic.

Anxiety and depression have surged over the past year. Overdose deaths in 2020 in the United States were up 30 percent since 2019.

“The pandemic has certainly brought the importance of mental health and its integration to medical health to center. They are inextricably linked,” Galasso said.

People are human, and they are struggling. Anxiety and depression — along with joy and excitement — are all part of the human experience.

Galasso said we need to continue building on the momentum that elite athletes like Biles and Osaka have ignited.

“The narrative around mental health needs to change. I hope athletes like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are starting that movement toward the positive change we so desperately need,” Busanich said.

The bottom line

Gymnast Simone Biles and professional tennis player Naomi Osaka have demonstrated that it’s OK not to be OK.

There’s historically been a harsh stigma attached to opening up about mental health issues, especially among elite athletes.

But by putting their mental health first, Biles and Osaka have shown the world that mental health is a cornerstone of our overall well-being.

Read more on Healthline