I had initially decided I wasn’t going to say much about Simone Biles’ decision to drop out of my of her Olympic events, but then I realized, when I had started this blog, one of the things I wanted to focus on was how we make decisions and how our brains work at times.
But before I comment on Biles’ choice, I want to delve a bit into what we teach in our cave rescue training. We have a core 3 levels and much of our training involves rigging of ropes, patient packaging, and patient extraction. In other words, all hands on activities that require certain skills and training. A typical weeklong class will have over 80 hours of training. This means by the time a person completes the core levels, they will have spend over 240 hours in training.
But the thing is, many rescues don’t require any of that. I’ve done rescues where there was absolutely no rigging involved. But there is one component that is involved in all rescues, but we spend less than an hour on: psychological considerations. Every rescue involves at least two parties, the person being rescued, and the rescuer. And this means that their mental statuses are involved. Now, I’ll admit in perhaps the vast majority of rescues the mental status of the rescuee or the rescuer aren’t really issues or a problem, but they exist.
I bring this up because of two incidents that come to mind in my caving career, both that involve how our brains work, or more specifically in these cases, my brain. The first involves a body recovery and the second just a simple caving trip.
About 20 years ago we had an unfortunate incident where a local caver became trapped while underwater and drowned. Recovery operations already have a different feel and tempo than rescue operations. There’s generally very little urgency and you have to deal with family members and others who are struggling with the death of a loved one. The mood is far more somber. The death occurred on a Monday night. It wasn’t until Wednesday night that we were able to free Rob. I wasn’t in the cave when he was finally extricated. But the word came out that they needed people to help transport him to the surface. One of the folks in charge, a friend came to me and asked, “Greg, can you do this?” I had to stop and think. I appreciated that she was asking. I knew that “No” would be a perfectly fine answer and she wouldn’t think any less of me. Not everyone is psychologically equipped to deal with a dead body so close up, especially when it’s someone they know. An important part of what went into my decision was making sure I’d be a help to the team and not a burden. I didn’t want to freeze up or otherwise hinder things. I ultimately answered “Yes” because in part, I felt he should be accompanied by someone who knew him on his final journey to the surface and felt confident I wouldn’t slow things down.
The second incident was a simple caving trip. A friend and I were rigging the entrance to a pit known as Cemetery Pit. Our choice of rigging involved wrapping our rope around a large boulder and tying a figure 8 knot in it. Between the two of us we have tied a figure 8 knot 1000s of times. It’s our go-to knot for most things. Yet, because of the way the rope was laying around the rock, the angle of the one of the ropes forming the loop just didn’t look right to me. I was pretty confident I had it right, but when you’re about to rappel 150′ into a cave “pretty confident” really isn’t quite good enough. So I asked my buddy to take a look at it. He had the same reaction as me, “I think that’s right, but I’m not 100% sure. I’ll retie it.” He retied it and his results still didn’t look quite right. We both made a few attempts at it and each one didn’t quite look right. I believe we ended up tying something else that did look right and we had 100% confidence in. In retrospect, I’m suspect we had it right the first time (and subsequent times) but our brains suddenly had a case of the yips, or perhaps the caving version of the twisties
What do these have to do with Simone Biles? Two things: she was a team member who did the right thing, and who suffered from a sudden lack of confidence, or as they call it in gymnastics, the twisties.
I’m going to deal with the twisties first. Now, I haven’t done any gymnastics since grammar school, but I did have an incident once while diving/playing in the water that I suspect was similar. I had jumped off the diving board, probably doing a flip of some sort, and found myself tumbling underwater. This was an experience I normally enjoyed. I love the freedom water gives and twisting and gyrating underwater. But this time was different. When I stopped, I realized I had no idea which way was the surface. There was a moment of panic before I realized I still had enough air in my lungs that if I just waited I’d float to the surface. But I had for a moment lost my complete kinesthetic sense. I have to imagine this is similar what happened to Biles. In my case, the consequences was simply a moment of panic, then a simple wait to rise to the surface. In her case, having seen some of her moves and listening to some of the commentators, I’ve come to realize that in the case of a gymnast, such a loss can result in severe injury. This article illustrates several such examples. Similarly, if we had not been able to tie rigging we felt safe on, we might have aborted our trip because a mistake could be fatal. Sometimes our brains simply get into that state where up is down and left is right and it’s not simple to fix that. So, in that aspect, I think she made the right decision, as has any person caving (or in another activity) who has turned back because they’ve lost confidence in their rigging or skills. Better to be safe and come back another day than be sorry.
In terms of being a member of a team, she also made the right choice. She could have said, “Well I’m the GOAT, I’m going to compete no matter what” but because of her state of mind, probably not performed at her best and pulled back on some of her more extreme moves ( thus reducing her points totals) and very likely not won medals. But, by pulling out, and she opened up spots for other members of the team, such as Mykayla Skinner to step up. In a world where Biles had forced herself to compete, my guess is due to the twisties, she would not have medaled on the vault, and Skinner would have never had the chance to compete, which means the US would not have won Silver in the vault. Sometimes being a team player means stepping aside so others can do the job. In my case of the body recovery, had I not felt comfortable in my ability to carry out my task, I would have rightly stepped aside.
I have to give Simone Biles a lot of credit. The weight of the world, or at least the US was on her shoulders. She was expected to perform at levels that no one else has reached. She also knows that few gymnasts at her level compete late into their 20s. This may be her last Olympics. All the pressure was on her to compete. But had she done so, she risked serious injury and very well may have kept the US from winning as many gymnastic medals as they did. I respected her before, but I have to admit I have even more respect for her now. She really is the GOAT.