Why gymnasts develop fear and how to help

Gymnastics on tv often make high level skills look easy. However as a mom of 2 gymnasts, I can tell you otherwise. There are MANY hours of practice. Skills are sometimes achieved, then lost, and then achieved again. Progress may seem to happen at a snails pace. But sometimes gymnasts suddenly develop what’s often referred to as a mental block on a skill they’ve previously been proficient at. Our experience with this led me to wonder why gymnasts develop fear, and how to help?

Why the gymnasts start to struggle

Biggs competed with a very large team last season. There ended up being almost 40 percent of the girls she competed with struggling at least a little with a mental block. The unusually high percentage may have been partially due to the aftermath of COVID related stress and changes. However, there were several other factors.

The team was composed mostly of girls ages 10-13. Many of the girls were at stages of puberty and growth spurts. Adjustments to skills were needed to accommodate growth and body changes. They were at the age where the brain starts to comprehend the potential danger for the skills they were competing. Just being around teammates that were doubting themselves seemed to be contagious. A few had experienced a recent fall or injury, but most had not.

Not so helpful pressure

Once Biggs started more frequently balking on her backwards tumbling, I knew we needed to be proactive to prevent it from taking root. Private lessons in the gym didn’t seem to be doing the trick to rebuild confidence as they previously had. I saw a recommendation online for a performance coaching program, and decided to give it a try.

Some of what we have learned through the performance coaching is how pressure from well meaning coaches or parents can be counter productive. If an athlete’s brain is short circuiting the body’s attempts at a skill due to perceived danger, threats or bribes will not help. If the athlete repeatedly attempts the skill and balks, it reinforces the fear pattern. The athlete is not lacking motivation, but rather lacking the confidence in themselves to complete the skill. Repeatedly balking when pressured to keep trying the exact same thing further degrades the confidence.

Success fuels success

If cheering, words of encouragement, etc. are not enough to rebuild confidence, what then? If the athlete needs to regain the skill to move forward, what is the solution? The athlete needs opportunities to rebuild confidence at a progression that be successful. Just like learning the skill to begin with, the athlete isn’t expected to start with the skill itself. There are progressions that build up to the proficient competition ready skill. Practicing a progression that will be successful, and slowly progressing back up to the full skill is needed. If an athlete is confident that they will be successful, they will be. Successes then set the stage for forward progress.

Learning mindfulness

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Wether an athlete or trying to succeed in another area of life, being mindful of the message you are giving yourself is important. Read my post about loving yourself first here. Learning to overcome the mental struggles of a sport like gymnastics is a great life lesson. Learning how to maintain confidence despite outside influences is invaluable.

Paper clips for visual reminders of success
Paper clips for visual reminders of success

Journaling is a great mindfulness tool. We got these journals and magnets in place of a valentines gift for all the teammates. It is a great practice for them to be regularly mindful of all of their little successes and progress. For an immediate visual reminder of successes, I started a paperclip jar as a visual ”piggy bank” to fill for Biggs. After every practice, I ask her to point out any successes or progress on new skills or skills that she’s been struggling with. Anything that built her confidence. She has been adding these colored paper clips to one of these jars as a visual reminder of her progress and success.

Cultivate a positive mindset

I love being surrounded by positive reminders. For Christmas, I purchased these motivational posters, with these frames to place around the house. These make good reminders that the best things in life don’t often come easily, and hard work pays off.

Visualization successful routines or skills can be great for programming the brain for success. I have had Biggs watch videos of her successfully doing skills that she has started to doubt herself on, for a reminder of her success.

Other tools to use

Check out my post of favorite essential oils for gymnasts here. It includes some of our favorites for confidence and focus. My post on natural remedies for gymnasts here also gives ideas for some of the physical discomforts that can accompany the sport. While this may not be the most common cause of losing confidence on skills, pain could play a part. For example, I have seen gymnasts become so much more confident on tumbling or vault after getting tiger paws. Taking away the associated wrist pain increased confidence.

Special considerations with ADHD

Many kids with ADHD end up in sports like gymnastics with the goal of letting them run off some of their energy. Check out my post on helpful information for the coaches here. Specific to struggles with confidence, it may be helpful to understand patterns common with ADHD. Emotional dysregulation and feeling emotions more intensely is often a big factor.

Sensitivity to perceived failures can be exacerbated when impulsive actions or decisions cause negative consequences more frequently than might be experienced with a neurotypical peer. Fear of failure can be blown out of proportion, which could make losing confidence in a sport even more complicated. This article on the importance of positive parenting gives some insight that may be a helpful consideration when dealing with confidence struggles.

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The content in this post is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  It is merely opinion based on personal research and experience.

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