How to Handle “the Twisties”: A Master Class from Simone Biles

gymnast leaping in the air with words "EVERYBODY GETS THE TWISTIES"

The twisties—getting lost and not knowing where you are in time and space—pretty much defines what life looks like right now for most of the world. - Sister Beth Murphy, OP

A recent Washington Post article defines “the twisties” as “The sudden inability for a gymnast to make the requisite spins—or sometimes any spins—for a particular maneuver.”

As Canadian Olympic athlete Rosie MacLennan told the Post for that same article, “When you get lost in the air, it’s one of the most terrifying experiences you can have.”

The twisties are the reason American gymnast Simone Biles forfeited her participation in most of her scheduled events at the Tokyo Olympics, though she did compete in a final event, the balance beam, and took a bronze medal for that courageous performance.

women of Cor Unum House sitting in the living room together

At Cor Unum House, where I live and where we regularly gather with an emerging community of young adult women, we’ve decided that the twisties—getting lost and not knowing where you are in time and space—pretty much defines what life looks like right now for most of the world.

Since before the pandemic struck we’ve welcomed young adult women to Cor Unum who want to deepen their spiritual lives in a community of faith and who seek a way to orient themselves in a world full of disorienting change and challenges. Those gatherings, whether in-person or virtual, have convinced us the challenges Simone faced at the Olympics are of a different magnitude, but of a similar kind as those faced by anyone paying attention to the world around them.

The global pandemic has brought into high relief inequities and fault lines that have existed in our fractured world for a long time. Humans struggle with race inequity and all the interrelated, structural, social, and moral imbalances it propagates. History holds more than enough evidence to prove that attempts at governing devolve, at regular intervals, into ideological power struggles. We’ve destroyed the ozone layer by burning carbon at least since the Industrial Age; now it’s catching up with us. We may not be able to repair Earth fast enough to avoid catastrophe. That alone is enough to give anyone the twisties.

Then there is another changing reality that encompasses all the rest—the changing story of Creation. Science has given us new tools to understand our universe (actually a multiverse!) in ways that call into question older understandings at the foundation of human knowledge: about our relationships with one another, with the natural world of which we are one part, and with the Divine. Just as one cannot rush natural processes—you can’t hurry bread dough or the growth of crops in a field—so too, you can’t accelerate the growth of global human consciousness. That makes living in our world exceptionally messy right now—giving us all the twisties.

So, what can we learn from Simone about how to deal with all that disorientation?

  1. Be honest.
    Just as Simone declared she couldn’t move forward in competition, courageous honesty is the best policy. There is no sense in trying to paper over the fact that change is happening at such a rate that no individual, community, or nation can deal with it alone. And ignoring the reality isn’t helpful either. Doing so is dangerous. Simone knew that and did the right thing for herself and the US gymnastics team.
  2. Don’t oversimplify, or rush.
    When asked what was causing the twisties, Simone realized diagnosing herself too quickly and in public wouldn’t help. She told reporters, “I don’t really know how I’m feeling. Right now, I just feel like I have to go home and work on myself and be okay with what’s happened.” A response like that in front of a world full of expectations (and in a media universe that feeds on revenue-boosting, blockbuster hero narratives) takes bucket-loads of self-respect and self-knowledge. It’s good for us as individuals and for communities to take the time for proper diagnosis. Taking a contemplative approach to life is the key to living with disorientation. The women gathering at Cor Unum know that, and chose that every time they gather to socialize and pray together.
  3. Choose belonging over isolation.
    After making the decision to withdraw for what turned out to be most of her scheduled events, Simone wordlessly communicated her fierce interdependence. Though it might have been easier to crawl away to her Olympic village dorm, she chose instead to stand by her teammates and encourage them from the sidelines during their events. She understood herself as belonging to the team as a representative of the United States at the games. Through her presence she telegraphed that. As the women of Cor Unum Village begin to get to know one another, we too, understand that we are better together.
  4. Keep priorities straight.
    As exalted as we’ve made Olympic competition it is, after all is said and done, just a game. Simone knows what is really important, and she said so out loud: “My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win” she told reporters. The women who join us at Cor Unum House for prayer, conversation, and relaxation are prioritizing their spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being at a time when it might be easier to fall into a lazy nihilism that says “whatever” and stop paying attention to the needs of others and the realities of our world.
  5. Take a long view.
    There is a theory of change that involves three movements—orientation, disorientation, reorientation. That second movement—disorientation—feels an awful lot like what Simone, and all of us, are experiencing right now—the twisties. But if you look at the scope of human history, you’ll see this isn’t the first period of disorientation human beings have ever faced. It won’t be the last. Choosing to live through the lens of a faith tradition and a clear-eyed perspective on the human story is another way to combat the twisties. To the extent that Cor Unum holds a space for women to know themselves and one another as prayerful, hopeful, agents of change, we can be encouraged as we wait out the challenges and imagine ourselves into a better world.

No one of us is capable of fixing the world’s problems, nor should we try to do it alone. But by choosing honesty, recognizing complexity, seeking ways to be interdependent, knowing what’s important, and putting it all in the bigger context of the human story, we can find meaning, purpose, and even—dare I say—joy.

Thanks, Simone for the master class in life.

white outline of heart inside red circle - logo for Cor Unum House

Cor Unum House is the beautifully restored residence of the Cor Unum anchor community. Right now that's Dominican Sisters Mary Clare Fichtner, Lori Kirchman, and Beth Murphy. The house is designed to welcome as many as three women in early adulthood who want an experience of living simply and intentionally in a way that supports their desire for spiritual growth. Learn about Cor Unum House here.

2 thoughts on “How to Handle “the Twisties”: A Master Class from Simone Biles”

  1. Daphne Skretvedt

    What a wonderful analysis of the twisties and Simone Biles teaching. Thank you for a great lesson! To be read again and again!

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