The Thing With the Funny Name That Happens to Us All, Is No Laughing Matter

The Thing With the Funny Name That Happens to Us All, Is No Laughing Matter

Business August 13, 2021 / By Larry Robertson
The Thing With the Funny Name That Happens to Us All, Is No Laughing Matter

How we lose our way – all of us, why we should care, and what we can do to raise the odds of peak performance ongoing

In gymnastics, they call it the twisties. In other sports, it’s known as the yips. Even if you’ve never heard these strange, funny, almost-childlike words, you can probably relate. It’s true the lexicon was shaped in a field of play likely different from your own – the world of professional sports. In that arena, athletes bring unique skills and are called upon to do incredible things, things they spend years honing their bodies and minds to do, things that when we see them done, we look upon with amazement and credit as superhuman. American Olympic gymnast Simone Biles performing acrobatic moves so original and so daring she has four moves named for her, is but one recent and noteworthy example. Naomi Osaka winning four major professional tennis tournaments in just over two years is another. We marvel at such feats. And when an elite athlete repeats them, as Biles and Osaka have, we not only come to expect such exceptionalism, we are shocked, even upset when they don’t. When they then explain it by saying that ‘they got a bit of the twisties,’ as Simone Biles did last month when she pulled out of five Olympic events all of which she had been anticipated to win, we think we don’t understand – not just the words they use, but the sudden lack of ability. But we do. Everyone gets the yips – that suddenly caught off guard lack of sense of where we are and why it is we do what we do.

What does the yips look like in elite sports? Shortly after Biles withdrawals, the Washington Post’s Emily Giambalvo interviewed retired top-tier gymnasts about what had happened and specifically, about Biles reference to the twisties. Among them was Sean Melton. Melton had struggled with the same thing at several points in his career, describing times when he would finish a routine, salute the judges… and then not know even where he was. That was after a performance. The real terror, Melton said, was when the twisties came in the middle of a performance, when he was twisting high in the air, more or sometimes less than he was supposed to twist (hence the name). Like Melton, Biles made clear that more than just the performance outcome was at risk with the twisties. Biles described what happened to her as “getting lost in the air.” She also talked about the enormous pressure to perform she’d felt in the months and days leading up to the Olympics, which showed itself early in the form of miscues and lesser mishaps when she’d competed in the Olympic trials. After getting lost in the air at the Olympics, the twisties drove a tsunami of worries for Biles, from letting her team down, to seriously hurting herself. “You have to be there a 100 percent or 120 percent,” said Biles, “because if you’re not (even) the slightest bit, you can get hurt.” A moment driven by stress, one in which you forget the very things you know best, a moment when, more frighteningly, you forget why you do what you do and where exactly you’re headed. Forget elite sports for a minute. You know what that’s like, too.

Consider your work, whatever work it may be. In work environments, we talk about a sense of purpose. We don’t just talk about it idly; we talk about it as vital to giving our work meaning. In recent years, there’s also been increasing talk of purpose as being key strategically, and competitively as well. In a study of 500 executives from across sectors by the EY Beacon Institute, an institute that just happens to have been formed to focus on purpose in organizations, nearly every executive declared purpose to not only be important but key to success. And yet, less than half of those leaders said it actually informed their day-to-day decision-making and strategy, or the operations they led. We forget purpose in no small way because we forget to put it out in front and make it part of what we do each day.

In organizations, purpose, sometimes called mission, is most often an exercise of the moment, an effort made to boil all that we do down to a sentence or two, then hang the words on a wall, relieving those words of duty to guide us and remind us why we play the game and where we are trying to go. Too often, purpose is something we hope we will just arrive at someday, rather than something we use as a compass for every decision, every act, by every person, every day.

As problematic, we confuse the idea of shared purpose, that is the purpose of a group or team, as the same or equal to the individual kind. As humans, we long for and indeed need our own internal gyroscope to guide us. The truth is we take up roles not just in one group but in many, and our roles and those groups we play them in, change all the time. Some refer to this individual kind of compass as having a sense of soul; others describe it as identity. The work any of us do, as a gymnast, artist, executive, or otherwise, is meant not just to service others – fellow team members, country, or company – but also to serve our soul.

When we get lost somewhere in our work, that is to say, when we lack that clear sense of personal direction, shared purpose, or both, and with it the ‘why’ of what we do, we get that everyman version of the yips. When we combine that with herculean expectations to perform perfectly or exceptionally all the time, even as circumstances change or uncertainty rises, were in danger of things greater than just losing our way. We lose our perspective. We lose motivation. We lose our sense of openness and the ability to see new things – new ideas, opportunities, even threats, and warnings. It’s pretty darn hard to perform, let alone create in such conditions.

The good news is that the twisties are fixable, but there’s a catch and it comes with two parts.

Sean Melton says that when he would get the twisties his coaches would have him go back to the basic elements. It’s a good tactic for anyone. In gymnastics, it was starting with basics moves – a tuck, a half twist, then a full, building the pieces back up into something fresh, relevant, purposeful. For any of us, it’s about getting back to our ‘why’ and then teasing out the memories or the new ideas as to ‘how.’ If you forget ‘why,’ your ‘how’ becomes a formula, one you leave more to muscle memory and less to the active mental acuity it both deserves and demands.

Getting back to basics sounds straightforward enough. But the first catch is that, as Melton pointed out, it takes time. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka both made this clear in their recent examples of stepping back from their game, not for a moment, not even for an event, but for a time longer and less clear that reflects a commitment to something larger first and foremost, and places everything else in that context. Truth be told, as working humans we have trouble with this stepping back, which brings us to the second catch: We have to change how we look at, deal with, and even talk about our yips – beginning with the last of those three things.

In the opening of the second season of Apple TV’s comedy series Ted Lasso – a show about a non-soccer American coach coaching an English professional soccer team – the team’s star player is underperforming. Indeed, he reaches a point where he simply can’t do it. The coaching staff knows why: the player has the yips. Yet as they talk about the underperformance privately one day, the humor of the scene anchors on the fact that each of the coaches is afraid to even say the word – writing it on a whiteboard, covering their mouth when the word yips slips. The made-up scene is emblematic of our reality. We think about performance, creativity, even people in ways that expect or assume perfection, when what we really need to do is expect and allow the perpetual evolution of those things, an ebb and flow, including that of star-level performance. Even the best of us need to be able to lean on the team for support in those things – that is, if we are ever to rise to anything approximating a perfect 10.

You can learn more in Larry Robertson's newest book Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times.

Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times

We are two decades into this new century, and now live in a world more uncertain than certain. In this new “abnormal,” our ability to sustain far into the future, to realize our dreams and our potentialities, and to progress, depends on seeing leadership in a whole new way. Rebel leadership is that new way.

There’s a growing pattern of not just individual leaders, but entire cultures rebelling against old and ineffectual ways that have long defined what it means to lead. At the heart of rebel leadership is the emergence of five patterns seen in leading organizations across sectors. Together, these patterns outline a framework for how to successfully meet this turbulent new century and thrive. Rebel Leadership will not only reveal these patterns, but will teach the reader how to tap into the power of this framework and make it their own.

More precisely, Rebel Leadership will teach readers:
• What lies at the heart of success, no matter how much the environmental conditions might change
• How leadership is counterintuitively at its most powerful when it moves across individuals and cultures
• That, inevitably, there is only one truly sustainable competitive advantage in uncertain times
• Where leaders can find the best source for lowering risk in a changing world
• Why a long-term view has less to do with the long-term and far more to do with this moment than you’d ever imagine

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