One of the biggest questions I get asked from gymnasts is how to calm their nerves for their gymnastics meet.
Being a nervous gymnast is common. In fact, the majority of the gymnasts I work with get nervous for their meets. While nerves themselves are not a bad thing, the way you respond to them can be if you find your nerves are hurting your performance.
First of all, remember that nerves mean you care and that the meet is important to you. If it wasn't so important you wouldn't get so nervous. So when you start to feel those butterflies in your tummy, rename them. Instead of saying "I'm so nervous" say "I'm excited!" That little shift in perspective will help your mind focus its energy in the right place.
Second, nerves can actually be helpful! When your body gets nervous it means it is going into the fight-or-flight response. That's the danger response your body has that causes it to react quickly to something you are perceiving as a threat. In the case of a meet, the threat could be a number of things such as fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, not feeling prepared, or stage fright. While feeling a "threat" isn't necessarily helpful, the response your body has CAN be.
For example, your body will pump out hormones that will help you run faster, be stronger, and have more energy. These can all be helpful traits when it comes to doing your tumbling passes and your vaults. However, if you aren't expecting this extra energy you might over rotate your skills or have too much power and take steps on your landings.
Now that you know nerves aren't such a bad thing, here are some tips for how to calm your nerves at your gymnastics meet so you can use them to your advantage:
I say this over and over but it really is true! Breathing is one of the best ways to calm your nerves and the fight-or-flight response that you're going through. In fact, think of breathing as your "danger shut-down button." When your brain notices that you are taking slow, deep breaths, it automatically signals the system that shuts down the danger response. It does this because it figures if you have the ability to stop and breathe deeply then there must not be any imminent danger nearby. Because if there was danger nearby, you surely would be running or fighting or hiding from it. And since you're not doing that, the danger has clearly passed.
In order to be effective, be sure to take slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. With every breath try to fill up the lower lobes of your lungs which means sending the air deep into your belly and out into your ribs. If you take short, shallow breaths then your brain continues to signal the danger response because that's the type of breathing you do when you're fleeing from danger.
2. Stay in the present moment
Most of your nerves come from thinking about things that might happen in the future. Or you might even be thinking about things that happened at your last meet or at a competition last season. Instead, keep your focus in the present moment and take it one event at a time. In that moment, think about what's important now.
Do you need to focus on your warmup, do some stretches, chalk up for bars, tape your ankle, etc? Every activity you are doing should be the only one you are focused on. Make sure your mind isn't wandering to your beam routine when you're still on bars. And if you notice your mind thinking about what happened at your last meet, take a deep breath and bring your focus back to the NOW. The more focused you are in the present moment, the less time your mind has to think about all of those "what-ifs" or the things that make you scared or nervous.
3. Focus on what you can control
Just like thinking about the future or the past, focusing on things you cannot control will only make you more nervous. You can't control the judges, the equipment, your teammates' nerves, your coach's reaction or anything else that doesn't come from you! And when you focus on those things, it will make you more nervous because your brain hates uncertainty.
Instead, think about what's under your control. Those are things like your attitude, your effort, your focus, your thoughts, your ability to bounce back, and your energy level. When you turn your focus on those things, you put yourself in control of your meet and make it more likely that you will have a positive experience. Again, you cannot predict the future or know what will happen at that meet. But you can decide to be positive, think good thoughts, focus on your skills, and keep a good attitude despite what happens.
4. Ask yourself "What's the worst thing that could I happen if I don't do as well as I'd like"
One of the biggest things that gymnasts often struggle with when it comes to nerves is not knowing how things are going to turn out. It's this uncertainty that leads to more nerves and can make their brains stay in that danger mode.
Ask yourself "What's the worst thing that could happen if I don't do as well as I'd like?" And then brainstorm some answers. You might not place or medal which would mean what? Would your coach or parents get mad at you? Would you get mad at yourself? If so, do you think you can handle that? YES! You've probably been in a situation before when your coach was mad at you or your parents were disappointed. And you survived! Now, you don't know those things would even happen. But if they did, you'd be ok.
Try thinking of all the worst case scenarios of what would happen as a result of you not doing well at your meet. And you'll most likely see that none of them is anything you can't handle. Your parents won't stop loving you if you perform poorly. Your coaches won't banish you from their gym. And while you might be embarrassed, if that's the worst that happens you'll be alright in the end. Just remember that.
5. Focus on strategies that have worked in the past
You all have different ways of coping with nerves. Think back to some strategies that have worked for you in the past. Did you listen to calming music? Did you read through a journal with affirmations? Did you close your eyes and imagine yourself performing well?
If it worked for you in the past it will most likely help you again in this meet. So keep tabs on strategies that have helped you. One way to figure these out is to think back to your best meet ever and ask yourself questions about it. Why do I think I did so well? What do I do to calm my nerves then? Did I feel really prepared? Did my coach say helpful words? Did I get a good night of sleep or eat a really good breakfast that day?
6. Adopt the motto: "Whatever happens, happens."
Again, you can't control a lot of what might happen at your meet. But you can control your mindset. Sometimes going into a meet with no expectations and just taking it as it comes is the best strategy for staying calm. One motto you can take with you is "Whatever happens, happens."
By thinking this, you can release any pressure you might have put on yourself and allow your brain to not feel the threat of fear of failure or letting people down. You go into the meet taking it event by event and not holding onto any certain outcome. While this might not be the easiest thing for you to do, I challenge you try this at your next meet. Put your focus on having fun and forget about the rest!
7. Smile and have fun
Speaking of fun, isn't that why you do gymnastics? Tumbling and soaring through the air is fun! It's why you started gymnastics in the first place. Going to meets and being able to put all your tricks together and show them off can be exciting! Even if you're not the most confident, you still have so much to be proud of. And you should be enjoying doing gymnastics any chance you can get.
Remember to smile and enjoy yourself. There's nothing at stake at your meet that is worth not having fun. Plus, judges love when you smile and look like you're having fun. So it might even help your score!
8. Remember how hard you've worked for this
It's common to go into a meet and feel like you're not as prepared as you'd like to be. Most gymnasts feel this. But also remember that you've worked really hard. You've been training all summer and through the years you've put in a lot of hours of practice and training. Trust this. Trust your training. Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. And just go out there and trust yourself. You can do this!
While nerves can be debilitating for some gymnasts, when you make a shift in your mindset you can come to see nerves as helpful. Remember to tell yourself "I'm excited" when you feel the butterflies in your tummy so you can reframe your nerves. Stay in the present moment and focus on the event you're on instead of letting your mind think about other events or past meets. Focus on what you can control at your meet such as your mindset, attitude, and effort and let go of what you can't control such as the judging, other competitors, your coach's response, or how you think your parents might feel about your performance.
If you get really nervous, ask yourself "What's the worst that could happen" and realize that whatever the negative outcome, you've made it through that before so you'll be alright. Also think of what's helped you in the past to calm down your nerves and try to repeat those strategies. If you can relax and adopt the motto "Whatever happens, happens" you'll find yourself much less attached to the outcome of your meet and more about to just smile and have fun at your meet! Always remember how hard you've been working for this. Trust yourself and your training and go out there and do your best.
Parents, having a gymnast who gets really nervous before her meet can be a tough thing to navigate through!
While the tips above are geared towards your gymnast, here are some things you can do to help your nervous gymnast.
1. Don't Add Any More Pressure to Her
While you might not think you put pressure on your gymnast, sometimes you might do it without even realizing it! For example, when you ask her a million questions before her meet you can send her brain into that fight-or-flight. So lay off the questions.
You can also add pressure by saying things like "Just go out there and do your best." That 'do your best' part can feel like a heavy weight on your gymnast's shoulders because she doesn't want to disappoint you. Instead, you might say, "I love you. Have fun. I'll see you when it's over."
You might also try to give your gymnast tips for how to do better. "Rembmer to keep your arms straight on bars" or "Smile at the judges" might all seem harmless, but to your gymnast they add more pressure.
No instructions, no advice, nothing but pure support for your gymnast! Trust that she's got this, even if you're not so sure!
2. Check Your Own Nerves
When you're nervous for your gymnast, you can put those nerves on her and she will feel them. Take deep breaths and get yourself into a calm state of mind. Remember that your gymnast has been training hard and that whatever happens, she'll learn something from it.
Nastia Liukin's mom used to get so nervous that she wouldn't attend or watch any of Nastia's meets. If you're that mom, then maybe staying home is the right choice for you. You want to make sure you aren't bringing any extra nervous energy to your gymnast.
3. At The End Of Her Meet, Don't Offer Constructive Criticism
You might notice things your gymnast can improve on and be eager to tell her so she can do better at her next meet. Don't do it! Instead, tell your gymnast how proud you are of her and give her a hug. When you offer advice or constructive criticism, it makes it more likely that your gymnast will feel like she didn't do her best. That feeling can carry into her next meet and cause her to be more nervous the next time. Let her coach be the one to give her the feedback.
Hope these tips help!
If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.
- Stick It Girl Academy: For competitive gymnasts who want to live into their potential and need that extra push in mental training
- 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