Summer is underway and while some of you might be starting to gear back up for another school year soon, there is still plenty of off-season training left. Competition season for gymnastics generally starts in late Fall/early Winter, depending on where you live, so NOW is the best time to build up your mental skills.
And this article is a guide to the 8 gymnastics mental skills you should be working on this summer.
Did you know that your brain is like a muscle? The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And the more you train your mental skills, the easier they are to use when you really need them (like during competition or when learning new skills). By consistently practicing your mental skills, they will get easier for you to do.
So what exactly does it mean to work on your gymnastics mental skills over the summer? I've realized that despite how often I tell gymnasts to focus on their mental training, many gymnasts don't really know what that means.
To help you, here are 8 specific things you should be doing as a gymnast during the summer and during your off-season training:
1. Vision Board
First things first, if you don't have a vision board already created then you need to make one ASAP! A vision board is a powerful tool that can help your mind believe in your dreams. But here's the thing - a vision board isn't just a super cool poster board project that you create that sits up on your wall. Instead it's a visual representation of your goals and dreams and you should look at it daily while imagining yourself achieving those dreams.
When making a vision board, make sure it's large and that you put it in a place that you'll see it ALL the time. It's especially good if you can see it from your bed so that it's the first thing you see in the morning when you wake up. I encourage you to make a vision board that you actually physically make by cutting out pictures and words instead of designing one on your computer. The physical act of cutting everything out really makes a difference.
A vision board is a powerful mental tool if you use it correctly. Every day you should spend 1-2 minutes staring at your vision board and seeing yourself living out that dream. If you have a lot of dreams on that board, then pick 1 each day to focus on. Imagine what it would be like to be there in that moment and what it would sound like, feel like, look like, taste like, and smell like!
This skill is THE mental skill that will make the most difference in a gymnast's life! Imagery is the ability to imagine yourself doing a skill or going through a routine "perfectly" in your mind. You should read this article on why imagery is important in gymnastics, but just know that in the off-season you should practice your imagery daily.
One way to do this is on the car ride to practice. While you are in the car, close your eyes and pick a skill you are currently working on in the gym to go through your imagery on. Imagine yourself doing that skill perfectly and remember to engage all your senses. The more "real" you can make it, the more effective it will be.
Remember, your brain doesn't know the difference between what it sees in your mind versus what you actually do in your body, so any time you can give your brain images of successful skills it will create neural pathways in your body that will match those images. This is HUGE!
Also, imagery can be used when you are recovering from injuries as well or when you're suffering from debilitating nerves. So overall, it's one of the best skills to have in your gymnastics mental toolbox. It goes hand-in-hand with your vision board as well.
3. Setting and Tracking Goals
Goal setting is obviously an important skill for any gymnast, but it's especially important in the summer so that you keep track of your goals. It's easy to just set goals and then forget about them and this is what happens to most gymnasts. Instead, you should be evaluating whether you have reached your goals not only every day but also at the end of every week. This is the only way you can figure out what is working and what is not.
Sunday is a great day to lay out some goals for the week. Pick a few things to work on that week in practice and then as you head to the gym each day, glance back at those goals so you know your focus for the day. At the end of practice you can decide if what you were doing was helping you reach those goals. If not, what can you do during the next practice to get closer to your goals.
Then at the end of the week, evaluate whether you achieved those goals you set for yourself. If not, ask yourself what needs to change. Where your goals too big? Take longer than you thought? Unrealistic? Not enough practice? Think about what you can do to set better goals and to achieve them for the next week.
Goal setting is one of the best ways to keep you on track, but again, it's only effective if you are tracking your goals and evaluating them constantly.
4. Gratitude Journal
Gratitude might not seem like a mental skill that is related to gymnastics but science has proven that people who express gratitude are happier. And happier athletes perform better. So it's important to make gratitude a practice that you do daily.
Practicing gratitude is simple; it's just a habit that most gymnasts don't do or forget to do. All you have to do is grab a blank journal and a pen and write in the date and then "3 Things I'm Grateful For Today Are:" across the top of a new page. Then write down 3 things underneath. Do that every morning and you're all set! Your 3 things don't have to be related to gymnastics. It could be anything that you are feeling appreciation for in that moment - your pillow, your blankets, your phone, your fuzzy stuffed bear. Anything that you feel good about.
Do this every morning and over time you'll notice that your perspective about things will shift and you'll find it easier to find good things around you everywhere you go (including in the gym).
Meditation also seems like a mental skill that is unrelated to gymnastics but meditation has been proven to keep your focus in the present moment. In gymnastics, there are many unknowns and it's easy to think about all the "what-ifs" or to what happened in the past that wasn't so successful. When you meditate, you train your brain to focus on the present moment.
This is a skill that requires practice. You might start with just one minute and then build up to 5-10 minutes per day. When just beginning, be sure to pick a comfortable, quiet position. But don't lie down. You should be sitting up. Close your eyes and try to just "be" in that moment. You'll notice thoughts swirling around your brain. Instead of entertaining those thoughts, simply see them floating away out of your mind.
In the early stages of meditation you might find that your brain just keeps racing and racing. That's ok. Don't let that stop you from trying it. Over time your thoughts will lessen and it will be easier to focus on the present moment.
Self-talk is an important skill to work on in your off-season because it will help you tremendously during competition season. But it will only help you if you've been working on your positive self-talk. In practice each day, you should be aware of what your self-talk currently is. Are you saying positive words to yourself when you get frustrated (You can do this; Let's go) or are your words mainly negative (I'll never get this; This is too hard)? If you don't know, then you need to become more aware during practice.
Once you know what types of words you are saying to yourself, then you can work on changing them if necessary. If your words are mainly positive then keep using them but stay aware anyway because your words may change depending on what is going on in practice.
If your words are mainly negative then you can work on recognizing that, and then slowly changing them to more neutral thoughts and eventually to positive ones. Read this article on self-talk for more ideas on how to change your negative self-talk.
7. Positive Affirmations
Positive affirmations are words you say to yourself to either motivate you or to inspire you to do better. Like self-talk, these words are meant to help you, but positive affirmations are quick phrases you can read or say out loud.
You should have a list of positive affirmations that you like and you might even put them on your vision board so you can remember them. Science has proven that when you use your name before saying a positive affirmation, it is more effective. So if you like the positive affirmation "You got this" then you might change it to "Anna, you got this." Your brain will register your affirmation more clearly if it has your name in front of it.
Keeping positive affirmations all around your room and on your notebooks and in other places around the house is a great idea since it will subconsciously trigger your brain to follow that mindset.
The best time to build up your confidence is in the off-season. But honestly, confidence is an ongoing skill that you need to work on ALL THE TIME! While some gymnasts may naturally have more confidence than others or have a greater propensity for taking risks or trying new things, confidence is a skill that can be learned even for those less brave gymnasts!
One way to build up confidence is to work through a confidence course like the one in the Gymnastics Mental Training Academy. Another way is to do things such as reading through your Book Of Proof daily, journaling about past successes, and watching highlight reels of your own successful routines and competitions.
For more ideas, read this article about confidence too.
Putting It All Together
While all of these mental skills might sound like a lot, they can all be done in a relatively short amount of time each day. If I could go back in time, this is what I would do as a gymnast:
Wake up. From my bed, I would reach over to my journal (which is on my night stand) and open it to a new page. I would immediately write the date and then 3 things I'm grateful for. I would then glance over at my vision board hanging on my wall and take 1-2 minutes to imagine myself living out my dreams. After that I would sit up against my headboard, set the timer on my phone or alarm clock to 2 minutes, close my eyes, and try to quiet my mind until the timer goes off (meditation).
Then I would start my day. On my way to gymnastics practice I would glance at the goals I wrote down for the week and pick one I want to focus on that day in practice. Then as I'm being driven to practice, I would close my eyes and imagine myself completing those goals that I just looked at. I would imagine myself doing that new skill I want to learn or having a successful practice. I would allow myself to feel what it's like to leave practice feeling good!
Then during practice I would be aware of my self-talk. If it feels negative I would take note of that and in that moment might try to find some neutral thoughts that help me feel better. As I'm learning a new skill or struggling through conditioning, I might say my positive affirmations to keep me motivated.
After practice, on my drive home, I would look at those goals again and decide if I did anything to get myself closer to that goal during that practice. If not, I'd brainstorm what I could do during the next practice to be more successful.
That evening as I lay down to sleep I would smile and know that everything is working out. I would think of a few things I did really well that day in practice and then remember a past successful moment in gymnastics. I might even quickly watch a video of myself doing one of my best routines. Then I'd turn off my light and get a great night of sleep.
As you can see, it doesn't take a lot of time to work on these mental skills. It just takes consistency and actually doing them every day. Nothing I've mentioned is particularly hard to do or to learn. You just have to make them a priority. I promise that if you do these skills over the summer and through your off-season, when meet season comes, you'll be in a much better place mentally and you'll have an easier time meeting the demands of competition.
- Free Resources: Get printables to help you work on your mental skills in gymnastics
- Free Growth Mindset Mini Course for Gymnasts: Learn why a growth mindset is important in gymnastics and tips to help you become a better gymnast
- 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