The vestibular system in the average human is an intricate network incorporating multiple inputs so that equilibrium is maintained. The vestibular system of an elite athlete who regularly defies gravity, making complex rotations look routine is exquisite.
Watching the Olympic athletes maneuver in the air with precise knowledge of where their body is in relation to the ground, ice, ramp, or beam, depending on sport, is wondrous and not something to be taken for granted. Simone Biles’ recent and abrupt departure from competition due to a case of “the twisties” is an example of how critical the integration of vestibular and spatial awareness is in addition to physical strength.
“The twisties” as other gymnasts describe, is a mental block where athletes either lose or overthink a previously learned series of coordinated movements, or get lost in the air, effectively stopping them from completing the physical coordination required to safely execute gravity defying maneuvers.
There are three classifications of movement that help even us non-Olympians maintain our balance. The first and fastest is the myotic reflex. This is triggered when an outside force or perturbation occurs (e.g., think about being shoved from behind, or stepping on an icy patch). The ligaments and tendons stiffen surrounding the ankle, knee, and/or hip joints. This happens within 30–40 milliseconds and is pretty consistent regardless of athletic ability. The second is the functional stretch reflex, which takes about 100–200 milliseconds to kick in and incorporates larger muscle groups to assist in maintaining balance. The third classification includes all volitional movements. These are learned and are highly adaptable. Volitional movements, as the name suggests, aren’t really reflexes at all, even though some occur so quickly and naturally.
In the eyes of an average person, they may seem reflexive. The truth is some of these movements take hundreds or thousands of hours to hone and perfect. In addition to the physical practice, mental and cognitive rehearsal of these movements also occurs. It is hard to miss the pregame 1000-mile stares of some athletes before they take center stage. Most likely they are imagining and going over every minute detail of their routine, route, or game plan.
Unlike orthopedic injuries, when this internal representation is off or disrupted, there are no blatant outward signs. There may, however, be subtle signs that the individual notices such as, “feeling off” or “getting lost in space.” This may not seem like a big deal, but when you are attempting feats that no ordinary human can do, one slip up can result in catastrophic consequences.
Unfortunately, not much is known about these types of issues. I imagine after such high-profile attention to this issue, future studies in the vestibular and central processing systems of elite athletes will be conducted.
Goldman T. (2021) “Simone Biles got the ‘twisties’ at The Tokyo Olympics. Here’s what that means.” NPR (accessed July 29, 2021).
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