Coaches, this blog is for you. I know coaching a gymnast through a mental block can be frustrating and confusing. So I wanted to provide you with some information and strategies to help you get through a situation like this with your gymnasts.
When I work with gymnasts on the mental coaching side, I often hear that they either don't get the support they need in the gym or that their coaches are frustrated or mad at them (which doesn't help them get their skill).
So I wanted to give you some tips from a mental coaching perspective that might help you understand a mental block better and have some tools to use when coaching a gymnast through a mental block.
First, what exactly is a mental block?
This is an interesting question because technically a mental block is when your mind forgets things like when you walk into a room and can't remember why you're there. That's not exactly what gymnasts have.
But since the term "mental block" is used so commonly in the gymnastics world I'm going to use this term to describe what happens when a gymnast all of a sudden can no longer do a skill she's been doing consistently before.
First, let me make clear that there is a difference between fear and mental blocks. If a gymnast is first learning a skill and is afraid to do it, that's fear not a mental block. If a gymnast falls on a skill and is afraid to do it, that's fear not a a mental block.
However, when a gymnast has been doing her series on beam for months (even years) and then one day goes to do her series and can't seem to go for it, that's a mental block.
Technically a mental block is when your gymnast's brain is responding to the skill using a danger response. This is that fight-flight-or-freeze response that humans are hard-wired with to respond to a threatening situation. There is something in her brain that is telling her things are unsafe.
BUT...here's a big key. Her brain isn't saying the skill is unsafe. After all, she's been doing this skill over and over for forever so her body already knows what it's doing.
Her brain is responding to a perception of a mental threat, whether that's something like needing to have the skill for the next season, a countdown until next season begins, wanting to prove to you, her coach, that she can do well, putting pressure on herself to be the best, and so on and so forth.
You can see that it's something that isn't all that easy to put your finger on. Most of the time gymnasts have no idea what sort of pressure or threats they're feeling which makes coaching a gymnast through a mental block even more confusing.
Your Gymnasts Don't Lack Motivation
I want to make one thing clear. Your gymnasts going through mental blocks do NOT lack motivation. They aren't lazy. They don't want it any less than the other gymnasts on your team.
That's why threats, punishments, withdrawing attention, not allowing them to compete, and other "scare" tactics don't work on mental blocks!
Please read that last line again because a lot of the coaches I hear about from the gymnasts I work with tell me their coaches do these things.
Let me say this again: Your gymnast doesn't need to be motivated to do her skill.
I understand why you might think this. After all, your gymnast could do this skill yesterday and now can't so you might assume it's because she's being lazy, not really trying, or just doesn't want to do it.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Your gymnast WANTS more than anything to do her skill. She is just as confused as you are because she doesn't understand why she can't do it anymore even though she is genuinely trying to do it.
Please remember that and in remembering that have compassion and patience for your gymnasts.
I also get that when you ask your gymnast what's going on she'll often respond with "I don't know." The truth is, she doesn't know. I teach my gymnasts to communicate with their coaches and try to explain what they're feeling in that moment instead of the typical "I don't know" which gives you, her coach, absolutely no information. But again remember that your gymnasts are equally confused. One moment they could do their skill and now they can't. And they have no clue why.
So what IS going on?
Your gymnast's brain is in the "freeze" mode of that fight-flight-or-freeze response because of some perception of threat she's feeling. The only way through this mental block is:
1. Her figuring out what thoughts keep shutting her down and working to lighten those thoughts (this is where a mental performance coach like myself comes in)
2. A coach with tons of patience who is willing to go back to the basics and break down her skill again so her brain will slowly take its foot off the brakes and allow her body to do her skill again.
Now, again don't get confused. Her brain isn't scared to do the actual skill. But in order for your gymnast to get this skill back confidently, she has to work with where her brain is in that moment. And since her brain is putting on the brakes when it comes to this particular skill, she has to slowly work her way back up to doing the full progression of it.
If she can work on the mental side of things and pinpoint the mental threats she's feeling, one day her skill will just come back with ease. But in the meantime, you have to treat her brain like a toddler and give it the reassurance it needs to keep working through her gymnastics skills with confidence.
Here's how you, as her coach, can help:
1. Ask your gymnast what she feels like she can confidently do in that moment as it relates to her skill.
For example, does she need to go down to the low beam to do her series? Does she need a spot when doing her tumbling pass? Does she need to go to the pit bar and do drills instead of attempting her flyaway? Does she need extra mats?
Whatever it is that's going to make her brain feel safer in that moment is what you should help her do. The goal is not to perpetuate the habit of NOT going for her skill which happens when she keeps trying to do a skill and balks on it.
One of the best ways to do this is to create a Skills Ladder with your gymnast. You work out easier progressions of the skill so that you and your gymnast have a predetermined plan as to what to do on the days when her skill is giving her issues. She then works on the lower progression of that skill until she can do it confidently before moving up to the next rung. Each time she comes to the gym she might be at a different rung of the ladder and that's ok! Eventually over time she'll be more consistently towards the top of the ladder until she has the confidence to work her actual skill.
Here is an example of what a Skills Ladder might look like for a beam series:
2. Don't force your gymnast to try her skill if she can't go for it.
I teach my gymnasts a 2 balk rule. If they attempt to do the skill they're blocked on and balk twice then they need to stop doing that skill. Balking over and over teaches the brain a new habit of not going for the skill and can make her mental block last longer than it needs to.
So no more forcing your gymnast to stand on beam for 30 minutes trying to go for her series! If she attempts it twice and can't do it, have her immediately move to a lower progression of her skill, even if that means a spot, mats, or moving to a different surface.
When you force your gymnast to work against her brain, her brain will push back harder which means those brakes come on even stronger.
3. Spotting is allowed during a mental block.
Yes, I know many coaches hate spotting gymnasts on skills they've already learned to do because they fear the gymnast will become reliant on it. But with a mental block, this isn't the case.
Your gymnast's brain needs to feel safe in that moment and if a spot is what she needs, then a spot is what she should get.
Think of it this way. Your gymnast hasn't lost her skill. Her brain is just stopping her from doing it in that moment. It's just like a gymnast who has broken her ankle and needs crutches to walk. She knows how to walk. She just can't do it unassisted in that moment. So you wouldn't deny this poor gymnast her crutches because you insist she already knows how to walk!
Once your gymnast works through her pressures and can ease up on those "threats" she will be back to doing her skill without a spot. So don't be afraid to spot those gymnasts with mental blocks if they need it to go for their skill. They will not become dependent on it if what they're going through is a real mental block.
4. Have patience, patience, and even more patience.
Remember that your gymnast is even more frustrated and confused than you are. She doesn't understand why she all of a sudden can't do her skill anymore. And it causes a huge dip to her confidence. This dip in confidence keeps her mental block going because then she stops trusting herself.
And when you are mean to her or force her to do things that don't feel safe to her brain in that moment, she learns to trust you less and less.
There is no quick fix for a mental block in gymnastics because your gymnast needs to work through some habits of thought that keep causing her to get blocked. So you are likely looking at a long road ahead. But with patience and an understanding mindset, you will help your gymnast get through this block much faster.
5. Don't give up on your gymnast.
If you think your gymnasts aren't trying because you see them not doing their skills, you might start to lose interest in helping them. When you understand that it isn't a choice your gymnast is making, but rather a biological response, you can approach the situation from a more positive mindset.
While it might seem like this is an issue your gymnast has been going through for a long time, it doesn't mean you give up on her in the meantime. One of the biggest complaints I hear from the gymnasts I work with is that when they are going through a mental block they often lose the attention of their coach. This makes them feel less worthy and as a result, perpetuates their lack of confidence.
While it may be impossible to devote more time to your gymnasts with mental blocks, make sure you are at the very least devoting the same amount of time you would have if they didn't have their mental block. In other words, don't ignore them or neglect them because they aren't performing up to their potential in that moment. Your gymnasts need to know you still care about them, even if they can't perform the same way in that moment.
Coaches, if you are really stuck or not sure what to do, you can book a free 15 minute Zoom session with me and we can chat things out. My goal is to help gymnasts overcome mental blocks, but this is often not possible unless their coaches are on board with positive coaching methods and an understanding of what is and what is not happening.
You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck and just remember - your gymnast wants to do her skill just as badly as you want her too! Working together you can both overcome this mental block and see a stronger and more in tune gymnast at the end of it. Keep the hope and have lots of patience!
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