It's no question that many gymnasts have distorted thinking that is negatively affecting their gymnastics performance.
Aside from negative self-talk and self-doubt, gymnasts can engage in irrational thinking that they might not even be aware of. While distorted thinking can't be fixed overnight, it's important to recognize when you're doing it and to have a plan for how to change it.
In this article, I break down the different types of distorted thinking that might be affecting your gymnastics and let you know what you can do about it.
Different types of distorted thinking in gymnastics:
Number 1: Perfectionism
Gymnastics and perfectionism tend to go hand-in-hand. And yet one of the most debilitating thoughts for gymnasts is that you must be completely competent and able to do everything you attempt with perfection.
We know in gymnastics that it takes time to learn gymnastics skills. And even after you've learned skills, mistakes happen when you're dealing with movements that depend on fine details such as your exact speed or body position in the air.
When gymnasts feel they need to be perfect their self-esteem will be lowered with every error, low score, or setback. They will also put so much pressure on themselves to do well that they will no longer enjoy gymnastics and their performance will suffer.
One way to move past perfectionism is to focus on the journey and not the end-result. When gymnasts are more focused on the process of doing gymnastics and not so much the score or place they got, they can ease up those perfectionist tendencies enough to enjoy themselves a little more. Gymnasts who are happier tend to perform better so the end result is a gymnast who is less concerned over the outcome but still performs well!
Now of course perfectionism is not a disordered thinking that you can expect to "fix" overnight. It is something gymnasts have to work on continuously and diligently to move past.
Number 2: Catastrophizing
Catastrophizing is when you expect the worst possible thing to happen. Gymnasts (especially those with perfectionistic tendencies) often catastrophize and believe that if they have any type of failure, it will be a humiliating experience. Of course, failing is never fun. But gymnasts with catastrophizing thinking are always thinking of the worst case scenario.
When gymnasts expect the worst possible thing to happen, often the worst possible thing happens which perpetuates this distorted thinking. A gymnast with this kind of thinking might get overwhelmed by what-ifs. For example, "What if I fall on beam today?" "What if I don't make it to college gymnastics?"
This focus on the worst can impede a gymnast's performance and in combination with perfectionism, can be a recipe for disaster.
One way to move past catastrophizing thoughts is to sit down and realistically evaluate a given situation (you might need a coach, teammate, or parent to help you do this). When a gymnast sees that she actually did perform many things well or that it wasn't as bad as she had thought it would be, then slowly she can rewire her brain for better thoughts. Another way to combat this type of distorted thinking is to set realistic goals with a coach so a gymnast knows exactly what can and cannot be accomplished during a performance. This can help to stop some of those what-ifs.
Number 3: Your Worth Depends On Your Achievement
Often gymnasts believe that they are only as good as their achievements in the gym, specifically how well they did at a competition. This leads to the distorted thinking that they must do well in order to please those around them (coaches, parents, teammates, etc). It also leads to a fixed mindset.
If you ask a gymnast to describe who she is without mentioning her successes in the gym and she can't do it, this is a gymnast whose worth depends on her achievements. Instead, gymnasts must learn how to value themselves for more than just what they accomplish in gymnastics. This can take time to unravel, as gymnasts who feel this way have a deep rooted sense of value in themselves as a gymnast.
But over time, a gymnast can make a list of her positive qualities that have nothing to do with gymnastics and focus on those general aspects in order to break free from this distorted thinking in gymnastics. Another thing gymnasts can do is ask those they are close to what some of their best qualities are. Sometimes hearing these positive traits (that have nothing to do with gymnastics itself) can help a gymnast gain self-worth.
Number 4: Personalization
Gymnasts who personalize believe they are the focus of activities and actions around them. They think that everything other people around them say or do is a direction reaction to them. They even think that when things happen, it is their fault and therefore blame themselves.
When gymnasts engage in this type of distorted thinking they will often make comparisons to others which is also a negative kind of thought process.
In reality, most of the time others are not even paying attention to what you do. And when things happen, it is often NOT that gymnast's direct doing. But personalization can lead to anxiety in gymnasts because they associate their actions with negative circumstances.
Number 5: Blaming Yourself Or Others
There are two types of distorted thinking at play here - gymnasts blaming themselves for every single problem and gymnasts blaming other people for what happens to them. Both of these types of thinking are detrimental to a gymnast's performance and well-being.
Gymnasts must learn how to focus on experiences that are within their control. But they also must not solely blame themselves for the outcome of everything around them as they are not 100% responsible for EVERYTHING that happens to them.
Number 6: All-Or-Nothing Thinking
This is when a gymnast sees things as either all good or all bad. A gymnast might think "If I don't get first place at this meet then I'm a total failure!"
You can see how extreme that thought process is and how detrimental that can be to a gymnast's psyche. This can also lead a gymnast to label herself as someone who is a "choker" (always chokes under pressure) or "terrible gymnast" because she had a few bad meets.
Number 7: Overgeneralization
Overgeneralization is when you make a general conclusion based on a single occurrence. For example, if a gymnast had a bad meet at a certain gym, then the next time she goes to that gym to compete she might assume she'll have a bad meet again.
This distorted thinking is based on negative expectations which can be detrimental to performance. With overgeneralization, words like never, always, nothing, and everything are frequent in a gymnast's thought patterns.
Number 8: Shoulds
This is a BIG one for gymnasts. I "should" be a level 9 already; I "should" have started gymnastics when I was younger; I "should" be able to do that skill again since I did it yesterday! Living by "shoulds" prevents gymnasts from focusing on the present situation.
Instead gymnasts need to recognize that "shoulds" only exist in their minds. "Shoulds" are pressures that they put on themselves that, in most cases, are not helpful.
How To Combat Distorted Thinking Patterns In Gymnastics
Number 1: Identify The Troublesome Thought
When you realize there is a thought that is causing anxiety or upsetting you, the first step is to recognize what kind of distorted thinking you are having. Awareness is the key to almost everything in gymnastics psychology!
Number 2: Try Reframing The Situation
See if you can find different ways of looking at the situation. Think of alternative explanations or objective evidence that can explain your situation. Write down your original thought and then write down 2-3 different explanations for why that situation happened.
Number 3: Replace The Absolutes
Consider replacing words like "always" or "never" with "sometimes." When you think about things in absolute terms, you will always think more negatively than if you don't do this.
Number 4: Weigh The Pros And Cons Of Your Thinking
If your thinking is serving you then you're more likely to repeat it again. But if you can look at your thought patterns and realize they are not helping you then it might help you try to change it.
Number 5: Look For The Evidence
Question yourself, ask others, and look for the evidence to support your distorted thinking before adopting it. If you can't find evidence to support it then find facts to disprove it and believe those facts.
Other Techniques for Helping Distorted Thinking
Construct Affirmation Statements
Affirmations are statements that reflect positive thoughts and attitudes about oneself. They are statements that should be phrased as if you already had what you want. The most effective affirmations are ones that are vivid and true for a gymnast. If a gymnast has to say a statement over and over that feels false then it won't build up confidence; in fact, it will do the opposite.
How do you come up with affirmations in gymnastics? One way is to think of statements that you might have naturally said to yourself during a good competition or practice. "I am strong and powerful" or "I come through under pressure" are examples of affirmations that a gymnast might have said to herself during a successful meet.
I also sell a pdf of affirmation cards that gymnasts can print out and cut out for themselves.
Create a Highlights Video
By creating a highlights video you essentially show yourself images of you being successful in different scenarios. You can take different video clips from different meets or practices and splice them all together. When you watch this over and over you retrain your brain to see your success. This will also prove to yourself that your distorted thinking was not true.
While all gymnasts can find themselves having negative thinking from time to time, distorted thoughts are consistent and persistent and should be dealt with. These thoughts form the basis for your experience in gymnastics and can influence so many aspects of your experience, from your self-esteem to how you perceive your coaches and teammates. When you find yourself having an irrational thought, work through the steps above to try to prove to yourself that those thoughts are not true. Good luck and remember that there is no better time than to work on your mental training than the present!
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