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Why did Simone Biles withdraw from the 2020 Olympics? The answer lies in the brain.

Over the last few years Simone Biles has earned the ultimate title of GOAT, rightfully honored as the Greatest Of All Time to compete in her sport. Ever.

When an athlete reaches this rare level, they transcend sport and capture the attention of the world. 

They become both more human to us as we connect with their struggles and triumphs, and yet they also change into something more ethereal as they seem to exist outside the limits of what we believe is possible.

Simone Biles became very human this week when she withdrew from all of her Olympic events. 

Despite her dominance and ability to perform skills that literally no other woman can, she withdrew from the Olympics because “she was in the wrong headspace”.

What happened?

The short answer is that nothing unusual happened here.

All athletes, even the GOATs, are in fact humans who will have poor performances. Many of the greatest athletes even struggle with longer term slumps. 

Everyone needs to remember that gymnastics is not a sport that you “power through” a slump. One can quickly sustain a career ending injury if attempted.

The better question is what causes even the greatest athletes to struggle when there is no discernable injury or mental health diagnosis? 

The answer lies inside the brain; the most intimate and least understood part of us.

Photo: Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil [Creative Commons]

All gymnasts are familiar with “the twisties”, decidedly non-neuroscience jargon for mental blocks that specifically affect dexterity and awareness while spinning through the air. 

2012 Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney said on instagram “I’ve had a lot of experience with these mental blocks, and they are miserable. You can’t even understand them, you’re like, Why is this happening to me, why is my body doing something different?”

Simone Biles knew something was off in her ability to bring all the component skills together as required. During the team final she knew something was wrong. The team trainers tried to convince her that she looked fine. Biles knew otherwise and she called it off.

But what exactly was “off” inside of her? 

The Neuroscience of how we perform can offer a few likely candidates.

Human performance is largely a summation of our perception and action systems, which make up the majority of the architecture in the brain and nervous system. 

This architecture is the one of the most sophisticated technologies on the planet and it is responsible for bringing everything together for the athlete’s performance.

Our perception and action systems are some of the most complex processes known.

They receive numerous inputs, including sight and our sense of body position and movement in space.

These inputs must be coordinated and rapidly updated while our mental energy is focused like a laser to direct a long sequence of split-second decisions that all must fall in place perfectly to plan and then execute an extremely sophisticated volley of actions.

 

Billions of neural wires follow specific pathways and patterns to accomplish this feat. 

But it is not choreographed. This is improvisation. 

Millions of signals must be managed and made sense of while thousands of reactions and micro-movements are delivered in real time.

A world class gymnastics performance requires every process and pathway to fire just right. There is no room to miss even one note. And this is where Simone Biles became human: the specific patterns of neuronal activation ran up against competing patterns of neural activity. What happened to Biles is what happens to all of us from time to time, just on a grander stage.

Competing patterns of neuronal activation, often referred to as “distractions”, overwhelmed the systems that control and regulate the activation needed for a world-class performance.

These distractions may have been conscious thoughts such as her ongoing litigation with the Olympic committee or the entire world’s expectations of her.

She most definitely had unconscious competing activation from stress, worry, and myriad other brain processes.

 

Distractions are normal and very human.

The ability of a great athlete to take on frenetic levels of distraction and still deliver is what makes sports so exhilarating to watch.

As fans, we have an innate, albeit often nonverbal, understanding of the focus, decision making, distraction management and emotional regulation required.

Not everyone can do this and we love to watch them try.

Included among Biles incredible skills is her interoception; the ability to go inward and sense her internal state.

She recognized the distraction, the “lack of traction” in the necessary pathways.

She knew the cost of making an error in Gymnastics can be grave and she made the call that only she could make.

She made the right call.

A world-class display of physical improvisation requires everything to come together almost perfectly and it seems fitting as fans that we don’t always get to witness it on demand at our convenience.

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