Is Your Head Holding You Back in the Gym?
"What's going on?" her coach wanted to know. "She's a level 10 gymnast and has the best back handspring in the gym. It's technically flawless and she's been throwing it on beam for years! Like black magic, POOF! It's suddenly gone! Now, she gets up on beam and just stands there, frozen like some deer in headlights. Six months now and I just don't get it!! I've tried everything I know to get her unstuck and nothing I say or do seems to work! Maybe she really wants to quit? I just don't know how to handle these head cases!"
Welcome to the mental side of gymnastics!
Fear is probably one of the biggest mental challenges facing the gymnastics coach, gymnast and their parents. Becoming a mentally tough gymnast means that you need to learn how to move towards and master this fear. Fear is not always as bad as everyone makes it out to be. First of all, a gymnast with absolutely no fear is an accident waiting to happen. Fear keeps you safe in the gym and is frequently a signal to your brain that your body may not yet be ready to safely attempt a skill. (Perhaps you lack the flexibility, spatial awareness or timing to accomplish it). Believe it or not, fear is also a positive indication that you're moving up to the next level in this sport. Every time you attempt a new skill or otherwise step outside of your comfort zone, fear will be there to greet you. In the case of our gymnast's "lost" back handspring on high beam? Well, that's a different kind of fear!
So what do you do about this or any kind of fear in the gym? Most coaches, parents and even gymnasts believe that the athlete must push themselves towards their fear in order to overcome it. Let me let you in on a slightly obvious secret here! THIS IS FAR EASIER SAID, THAN DONE!
What causes the gymnast to lose skills?
All too often, gymnasts who mysteriously lose their skills, can't simply get themselves to "just go for it!" They tell me, "No matter what I try, I can't get myself to go!" or "Something in the back of my mind is stopping me!" Often many performance fears and blocks in the gym are fed by past physically and/or emotionally upsetting events. You get lost in the middle of a skill, get the wind knocked out of you and scare yourself badly. Or you have a hard fall and get bruised or injured. Or you see someone else get hurt or have your coach get angry with and yell at you. Athletes tend to automatically memorize these upsetting events and will hold them in their minds and bodies for months or more, long after the upsetting event has been forgotten. You may not see a block right away, but at some point, there's a "trigger event." The gymnast has another scary fall or is in some way reminded of the past upset. And it's these old past upsets that ultimately end up fueling the gymnast's current performance problem.
These past upsets leave a gymnast feeling unsafe inside and when the gymnast has to do a skill that in any way reminds him/her of the upset, or the athlete is under pressure, that feeling of inner danger bubbles up into consciousness and increases until the gymnast automatically responds with the self-protective motor program of FREEZE. The athlete suddenly can't go for the skill. It's not because they have forgotten the skill or can't do it. It's because our need to stay safe, (by freezing) pushes the trained performance skills offline. Until the gymnast is able to feel safer inside, then he/she will continue to stay stuck. But the good news here is that a gymnast can systematically learn to recognize and work with that feeling of inner danger, calm their nervous system down and get their skills back!
This is the process that I teach gymnasts, along with how to develop the other mental toughness skills which will help them take their performance to the next level. Remember, your physical skills and talents as a gymnast are always limited by your mental skills and ability to deal with the fear that is such a normal part of this sport. Don't leave this all-important part of your training to chance. Learn how you can develop mental toughness and take your gymnastics to the next level!