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 by far the best back handspring in the gym. It's technically flawless! It's beautiful and she's been throwing it on beam for years! And now, POOF! Like black magic it's suddenly gone!! 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 works! Maybe she really just wants to quit? I just don't know how to handle these head cases!"
Welcome to the mental side of gymnastics!…to that mysterious and oftentimes unexplainable nether world between body and skill execution. Oh, how easy it would be if gymnasts could just do what coaches told them to whenever their bodies were ready. No such luck! That's not gymnastics! Training your body is only one part of what's necessary to learn and consistently execute a trick in the gym or at a meet. You also have to learn
to contend with, and train your mind. Gymnastics success can only be achieved when you begin to work on this mental side of your performance. To reach your goals you must learn to use the principles in sports psychology to help you develop mental toughness.
Recently I watched a very talented gymnast who was blocked by her back handspring on beam. She effortlessly threw the skill on floor, low beam and even on high beam with padding. However, when the padding was removed from the high beam she just froze. Her eyes got big as saucers, she stopped blinking and, minor problem here, she held her breath! Due to my long years of advanced education and vast experience as a sports psychology consultant I quickly deduced that life on the balance beam might be a wee bit difficult without an adequate and steady supply of oxygen. Luckily before she turned blue and passed out she would start to cry and jump down.
Fear is just one of the many psychological challenges facing the gymnastics coach, gymnast and parents. Becoming a mentally tough gymnast means that you need to learn how to master this fear. Mental toughness also demands that you learn many other mental skills. Staying calm and loose under pressure is critical to peak performance. In addition, you must develop championship concentration or the ability to focus on what's important and block out everything else. Don't forget self-confidence. You certainly can't perform to your potential under pressure unless you believe in yourself and feel good about your skills. With the right techniques and practice self-confidence is something that you can "grow." Mental toughness also means that you know how to both think positively and effectively handle the self-doubts and negative thoughts that are a normal part of this sport and that affect almost every athlete. Let's not forget the skill of "reboundability." The mentally tough gymnast has the ability to quickly bounce back from setbacks, failures and injuries. Finally, there's visualization or mental rehearsal. Do you know how to use your imagination to effectively prepare for upcoming performances and to learn scary skills?
Back to fear a moment. 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 this case it's not so bad…but in the case of our "beam balker"? No, there was nothing constructive about her fear.
So what do you do about this or any kind of fear in the gym? To overcome fear you must "get comfortable being uncomfortable" or consistently move towards the thing that you fear most. The only thing that will feed your fear is avoidance. By consistently pushing yourself to work on what you're afraid of you'll weaken fear's grip over you. A safe bridge to help you do this, besides working on "lead-ups" in the gym with your coach, is to mentally practice the skill that you're struggling with at least 15-20 times a day. This kind of systematic visualization, which we used with our "beam balker", where you try to "see", "hear" and "feel" everything you would if you were actually attempting the skill will gradually erode the fear and build your confidence. Mental rehearsal of physical skills is a very powerful stepping-stone to actually mastering them in the gym.
If you're blocked and want to get unstuck…If you tend to fall apart under pressure and would like to learn how to stick your routines when it counts the most…If you get intimidated by certain opponents or psyched out by the judges, then another mental toughness master skill you must develop is concentration. Show me a blocked gymnast and I'll show you an athlete who is focusing on the wrong things before and/or during the skill attempt. In many cases your fears are fed by a faulty focus of concentration. (Think about it! How well will you do if your concentration is on the "what if's" or what you're afraid will happen?)
Peak performance in gymnastics demands that your focus be on the skill that you're doing and the apparatus. When you perform your best this is exactly what's happening. You're not thinking. You're just paying attention to all the right things. What are the "right things" to focus on? Usually effortless skill execution is a product of concentrating on the proper feel of the skill. (Focusing on one specific kinesthetic or feeling cue). The stuck gymnast is instead focusing on his/her thoughts of what could go wrong. Getting unstuck means that you must learn to refocus on what your doing and feeling.
So what kind of head do you have on your shoulders? Where are you on the mental toughness scale? Start today to work on developing the mental part of your sport. Remember, your physical skills and talents are always limited by what goes on between your ears. Don't leave this all-important part of training to chance. Learn how sports psychology and mental toughness can help you.