Are you going through a mental block in gymnastics?
Mental blocks in gymnastics are SO frustrating! It feels like all of a sudden your body has put on the brakes and most of the time you don't know why.
Last week you were able to do the skill just fine and then all of a sudden (or so it seems) you now can't do that skill that you've done a million times before.
In a later article I'll discuss the reasons WHY you might be experiencing this mental block.
But for now, here are 3 things NOT to do when going through a mental block in gymnastics:
1. Don't keep pushing through/trying to do the skill
This is one of the biggest things I see gymnasts do. They know they can do the skill and so they keep trying to do the skill over and over even though they keep balking. While in theory it makes sense to keep pushing yourself to do a skill, when it comes to your brain this theory doesn't hold true.
Your brain is a complex organ whose primary goal is to keep your body safe. When it senses danger, it sounds off the alarm (your nervous system) and goes into a fight-flight-or-freeze response. In this case, it's the freeze response that is taking hold and preventing your body from doing the skill.
While this is so frustrating, the worst thing you can do is keep trying to do the skill because you are fighting against your nervous system's freeze response. You never want to do anything that goes against your brain. If you keep trying to do the skill, despite your brain putting on the brakes, it will start to create new neural pathways in your brain that will reinforce the block even more. We don't want this! Instead, your goal is to reinforce the right neural pathways which are created when you do the skill or a progression of the skill.
So your biggest lesson here is to learn to work with your brain instead of against it. And your golden rule to live by is if you balk (try to do a skill and can't do it) more than 2 times is to walk away from the skill and do something else. Never keep attempting a skill and balking (or standing on beam for more than 5 seconds without doing a skill). Never, never, never! Take a bathroom break if you have to. Go grab a sip of water. But don't keep attempting a skill you know you aren't going to do.
2. Don't stay silent
The next thing I hear gymnasts do a lot of is that they stay silent. Instead of telling their coaches that something is "off" they keep quiet and keep pushing through.
When their coaches ask what's going on typically a gymnast will respond with either a "nothing" or "I don't know." While the truth is you may have no idea what is going on and why you can't do a skill, you need to express this in such a way that your coach understands what you're going through.
A better response to your coach might be "I'm not sure, Coach, but something feels funny to me and I'm not feeling safe." This gives your coach valuable information so he or she can decide how to best help you. In a case like this you can even say something like even though you know you can do the skill you feel like you need a spot today.
Staying silent and just pushing through or shrugging your shoulders when your coach asks what's wrong is only going to cause your coach to push you harder or give you unrealistic demands such as having to throw the skill before leaving practice. Whatever you do, speak up and tell your coach that something is going on. Again, you don't have to know exactly what is going...you just have to be able to communicate that something wonky is happening.
3. Don't compare yourself to the gymnast you were yesterday
When you've already done a skill and often been able to do this skill many times, it can feel frustrating. And your first response is probably "I've already done this skill so I SHOULD be able to do it again today."
But when it comes to your brain there are no SHOULDS. There are only CANs and WHATs. What CAN I do today brain? WHAT feels safe?
Sure, you know your body can still do the skill and you're right. Your body can do it. But if your brain isn't on board then it won't allow your body to do the skill. So your best bet is to stop beating yourself up for what you SHOULD be able to do today and start listening to your brain to find out what you CAN do today.
If your back handspring on high beam is scaring you today then ask for a spot or bring the mats back or go down to the low beam. You've probably experienced that funny feeling in your belly that tells you that you aren't going to go for a skill. Listen to that feeling. If getting a spot makes that feeling go away then ask for a spot. If adding some panel mats back makes that feeling go away then ask to add mats.
Now I know some coaches are not so receptive to going to lesser progressions once a gymnast has learned a skill which is why number 2 (Don't Stay Silent) is so important here. If you have been communicating with your coach and he or she knows that things are feeling "off" today then he or she will be more likely to work with your requests.
So those are 3 things NOT to do when going through a mental block in gymnastics. By not doing those 3 things you can instead do the opposite and help yourself through your mental block in a better way. Mental blocks can be frustrating because they seem to come out of nowhere, but as you'll learn soon (in a later blog) they are never random. In fact, mental blocks always have a cause; it's up to you to be a detective and figure out what's been making your brain feel unsafe!
If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.
- Resources: Get gymnastics downloads to help your gymnast work on her mental skills in gymnastics
- Mental Health Training for Gymnasts: Help your gymnast learn about her brain and the fight-flight-or-freeze response.
- Free Facebook Group for Moms of Gymnasts: Join this group to chat with other gymnastics moms and get tips for how to help your gymnast navigate through the mental ups and downs of gymnastics