Anxiety is a big emotion that many gymnasts struggle with, especially as competition season approaches.
And as a gymnastics mom, it can be gut-wrenching to witness this anxiety in your gymnast. At times you may even feel helpless. Whether your gymnast is experiencing an uptick in nerves because of competition season or is a generally "anxious" gymnast most of the time, this article will help you learn some strategies to help her cope with that anxiety.
Here are 8 tips for how to help your gymnast cope with anxiety in gymnastics:
Tip #1: Recognize Anxiety In Your Gymnast
If your gymnast exhibits higher levels of anxiety around competition season then it's likely nerves and pressure that are causing her anxiety. However, it's important to recognize that anxiety can also masquerade as other feelings such as anger and avoidance. Even lack of interest or wanting to quit gymnastics can be a form of underlying anxiety.
If your gymnast is going through these emotions, be sure to check in with her and see if there's something else going on at the gym. It's possible she's had a negative interaction with her coach or a teammate that might be causing her anxiety. A gymnast with high expectations or who is a perfectionist might feel insecure about her abilities (especially come competition time) which can make her feel anxious.
Tip #2: Acknowledge Your Gymnast's Feelings of Anxiety
It's important that you normalize anxiety for your gymnast so that she knows her feelings are normal. Being anxious in gymnastics is certainly common given the difficulty of skills along with the focus on perfectionism. And when competition season nears, the anxiety level in the gym skyrockets. Coaches get anxious about preparing their gymnasts to do well in competition, gymnasts pick up on that anxiety, and it creates a climate in the gym that is less than ideal.
One of the best ways to normalize anxiety for your gymnast is to tell her a story about a time when you were a gymnast or a young athlete (or just a child, if you didn't play sports). Tell her a story that demonstrates how you were anxious in a certain situation and how you handled it. When she knows you had similar struggles, she can feel more at ease with the fact that she's feeling anxiety too.
Remember, it's not anxiety that's the problem. All gymnasts experience anxiety at one point or another. It's when that anxiety gets in the way of her functioning or performance as a gymnast that it becomes problematic. So normalizing anxiety will help your gymnast feel better.
Tip #3: Help Your Gymnast Identify What Anxiety Feels Like To Her
It's important to help your gymnast identify what anxiety feels like to her. Ask her some curiosity questions such as "What does it feel like in your body when you get anxious?" For younger gymnasts you can mention that feeling of getting "butterflies" in her stomach to see if she can relate to that. Ask her if she notices her shoulders or face tensing up. Does she have feelings such as wanting to run away and hide?
By identifying her physical response to anxiety, your gymnast will be able to "catch" anxiety in its early stages and prevent her anxiety from getting worse. This awareness is an important element of learning how to cope with anxiety.
Tip #4: Teach Her To Breathe Through Her Anxiety
If you know me by now, you know how much I mention breathing when handling nerves, anxiety, and everything in between. Breathing calms down your primitive biological fight-or-flight response which can help ease feelings of anxiety. When your brain recognizes that you are deliberately taking breaths, it turns off that response and returns your body back to its normal state of functioning.
By knowing what anxiety feels like to her, your gymnast can immediately start using her breath work when she feels those first signs of anxiety coming on. Teach your gymnast to breathe in through her nose filling her lungs and belly with air and then out through her nose, emptying her belly completely.
In addition, it's best to practice breathing when your gymnast is not feeling anxious so that she knows how to do this before she's in a state of panic or nerves. You might encourage breathing exercises before bed together or at the dinner table! The point is to get her used to this type of breathing so that she can use it when it really counts.
Tip #5: Remind Her Of When She's Gotten Through Something Similar In The Past
The worst part about anxiety is the unknowns - 'What if I fall? What if I fail? What if I get injured? What if I disappoint?' These are all things your gymnast might be thinking that can contribute to her feelings of anxiety.
However, if you remind her of a similar situation in the past where she felt anxious but worked through it successfully, this will give her the confidence to get through this bout of anxiety too.
Just know that in the moment of her anxiety, your gymnast might not be ready to hear about her past successful moments getting through her anxiety. However, still mention them to her. If she ignores you or yells at you, then you can stop. But keep mentioning how she's gotten through similar situations each type she experiences anxiety. Eventually your gymnast will "hear" you.
Tip #6: Make Sure You're Not Part Of The Problem
I hate to say it, gym moms, but often you're part of the problem. Many gymnasts want to please their parents and have them be proud of their efforts or results. This can put undue stress on your gymnast.
While this pressure might not be something you do directly to your gymnast, just knowing that you want her to do well can be enough to send gymnasts into a state of panic.
One of the best things you can do to help this is to remind your gymnast that you love her no matter what. You love her for HER and not because she's a gymnast. And whether she gets first place or last place, you love her for being her and not for her gymnastics abilities. Sometimes gymnasts need to hear these words. Actually, they always need to hear these words.
Tip #7: Help Your Gymnast Take Care Of Herself
One of your main jobs as a gymnastics mom is to make sure your gymnast's physical needs are taken care of. Is your gymnast getting enough sleep each night? Does she eat enough and the most nutritional foods to support her gymnastics practices? Is she too overbooked in her schedule or does she have some free space to breathe?
These are things you must constantly be tweaking to make sure that as your gymnast evolves with her sport, so do her needs get met. Gymnasts whose physical bodies are not where they should be or who are feeling overwhelmed or stressed will become more anxious. And those gymnasts who are constantly overloaded will need a break from time to time.
Tip #8: Remind Yourself That This Is Happening For Your Gymnast And Not To Her
Watching your gymnast go through anxiety, whether crippling or not, is tough. It's easy to fall into the trap of feeling sorry for her and her struggles. But here's the thing: Her anxiety is happening FOR her and not to her. I truly believe there is a gift in every situation your gymnast experiences, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time.
By recognizing that there is a blessing in disguise in her anxiety, it can help take some of the stress off of you as a gymnastics mom to not feel like you have to constantly be doing something to "fix" her anxiety. Your gymnast will get through this and on the other side she will be stronger for it.
There you have 8 tips for helping your gymnast cope with anxiety. Anxiety and nerves are very real in the sport of gymnastics. Some gymnasts start to feel anxious the moment they see their competition schedule. Others carry a baseline level of anxiety throughout the entire year. Whether it's nerves or something else, all gymnasts with anxiety can benefit from your support as her gymnastics mom.
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