Fears and balking in the gym are often confusing and incredibly frustrating to coaches, gymnasts and their parents. Few realize that these mysterious performance problems most often come from past scary experiences.
Dr. G’s way of understanding and working through lost skills and performance blocks
In everything that we do, we learn by making mistakes and failing. In most other sports, this learning process is non-eventful. You miss a shot, hit a ball into the net, strike out, or drop the ball, etc. In gymnastics, however, when you make a mistake, there can be scary consequences! You can have a scary fall, get banged up or bruised, or sustain an injury. In this way, Gymnastics is a unique sport because there is always the potential of getting hurt. Add to this, the fact that as you progress up through the levels in this sport, the degree of skill difficulty rises and so also does your chances of sustaining an injury. As a consequence, fear is almost a constant companion for the competitive gymnast. Whether it’s a fear of a release move, going backwards on floor or beam, a new vault or a dismount, I know of no other factor in this sport that can kill an athlete’s joy, drive a coach to distraction and totally confound the athlete’s parents than the fear-driven loss of skills.
WHY GYMNASTS LOSE THEIR SKILLS
Every time a gymnast experiences something physically and/or emotionally upsetting in the gym, they will automatically memorize this experience and everything about it, keeping it in their mind and body, long after the event has been consciously forgotten. Scary falls, close calls, injuries, watching other gymnasts fall or having a coach angry, frustrated with and yelling at you all get memorized and stored in the gymnast’s nervous system. Later on, when the athlete is in any way reminded of that past upsetting event, i.e. the gymnast has to go backwards again, or he/she is under pressure, then components from the original scary event (images, emotions, fear, negative thinking and physical tightness) begin to bubble up into consciousness and what the gymnast mainly becomes aware of is FEELING UNSAFE INSIDE. When this happens, BIOLOGY TAKES OVER!
WHAT CAUSES BALKING
When our nervous system (our brain and all of our senses) senses danger, we will reflexively respond the way all mammals do, by protecting ourselves. If you are standing at the beginning of the vault runway or getting ready to mount the apparatus for the start of your event, you can’t really protect yourself the way most mammals do by fighting or fleeing! In this situation a third, survival option automatically kicks in: The FREEZE RESPONSE. The gymnast suddenly can’t get themselves to go for the skill! The gymnast has no conscious control over this. This is, instead, a biological response to danger. It doesn’t matter if a parent or coach reassures the gymnast that he/she is safe! It doesn’t matter if the gymnast reassures him/herself. Because survival is the number one priority for us as mammals, the FREEZE response pushes any trained performance skills offline! The gymnast will not be able to regain his/her skills until their danger response of freeze is effectively dealt with!
SOURCES OF FEAR/DANGER IN THE GYM
Often times the gymnast can’t even clearly articulate why they can’t go for their skills or what they’re even afraid of. Whether the gymnast is aware of these or not, there are four major sources of fear in the gym which feed balking and lost skills.
#1 – PAST SCARY PHYSICAL OR EMOTIONAL EVENTS IN THE GYM – Injuries, hard falls, scary close calls or seeing other gymnasts get hurt or upset fuel this sense of inner danger.
#2 – THE COACH’S RESPONSE TO THE STUCK GYMNAST – Often times coaches will get frustrated, impatient and angry with a gymnast who has suddenly lost their skills and won’t go. They will say mean things, punish the gymnast, tell them that they “Don’t want it bad enough,” “Aren’t trying hard enough,” or “Don’t care” or kick them out of the gym. They’ll refuse to spot them telling them that they don’t need a spot and that this will simply make them more dependent. Since every gymnast needs to trust their coach and feel safe, this coaching response further contributes to the gymnast’s sense of inner danger, making them more stuck!
#3 – THE GYMNAST’S OWN RESPONSE TO THEIR STUCKNESS – Most gymnasts are PERFECTIONISTS and when they mysteriously lose their skills, they become incredibly frustrated and impatient with themselves. They pressure themselves to go, and when they don’t, they get really angry at themselves. This kind of impatient, frustrated response will make the gymnast feel that much less safe inside, further contributing to their performance block!
#4 – THE PARENTS RESPONSE TO THEIR SON/DAUGHTER’S BLOCK – It is very difficult to understand why your child is suddenly having trouble doing skills that he/she has done forever. As a parent you just want to help. Unfortunately, often times your help involves making suggestions about what the gymnast needs to do in order to get over the block. When the athlete is not able to use your suggestions, it’s not uncommon to become frustrated yourself and want to say to them, “Just do it! You know how to do this! Just go for it!” Because our kids are hard wired to make us proud, when they struggle, they feel that they are disappointing us. If your son or daughter picks up on your frustration, impatience or emotional over-involvement in trying to get them unstuck, they will respond by feeling less safe because they feel that they’re making you unhappy. This further fuels their sense of inner danger!
When unchecked, fear can spread like wildfire from first one skill to another, one event to the next until the gymnast is so ruled by fear that he/she can’t even make it to the gym anymore. When not successfully worked through, a gymnast’s fear can easily drive them out of the sport.
WORKING FEAR THROUGH
There is one basic strategy for overcoming fear that coaches, athletes and parents use. They believe that you overcome fear by doing the thing that you fear the most, over and over again. Unfortunately, for the more resistant fears, the ones that are fed by these past upsetting events we’ve been discussing, this strategy doesn’t often work.
Last year I worked with a gymnast who had seriously injured herself doing a move on Bars. She was a dedicated Level 9 athlete with Elite aspirations and a desire to compete in college. No one worked as hard as her in the gym and very few of her teammates had her focus and desire. Because she had broken bones, it took her a number of months to recover from her injury. When she had been medically approved to go back, she was dogged by a fear that “it” was going to happen again. The fear followed her around the gym and wouldn’t leave her alone. It spread from bars to floor and from floor to beam. She was left balking on skills that she used to easily do before the accident. Her frustration and impatience at being stuck seemed to be growing out of control. Most nights she’d come home from gym miserable and in tears. She couldn’t get the fear out of the back of her mind. No matter how hard she tried, she was unable to will her body to just go for it.
Thankfully, this gymnast had a patient, caring coach. All too often, coaches internally measure their value and self-worth based on how well their gymnasts perform. When a gymnast gets bogged down on a particular skill because of fear, some coaches, after exhausting their repertoire of coaching interventions, will become impatient and demeaning. Why? Because they see the gymnast’s inability to move beyond his/her fears as a critical failing on their own part. They inaccurately reason that if they were a better coach, they could get the athlete unstuck. A coach’s frustration, anger and impatience directed towards the struggling gymnast does NOT help her get unstuck. On the contrary! The gymnast’s worry about disappointing the coach and falling from grace in the coach’s mind, only serve to get her more afraid and stuck. Most gymnasts need understanding and patience when they’re struggling.
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If you would like more information about how this process of resolving fears & blocks works and whether it might be effective for you or your child-athlete feel free to call me at (413) 549 1085