While we all have emotions, learning how to handle big emotions in gymnastics is an important part of becoming a successful gymnast.
To be super clear, emotions are not bad. In fact, they exist for an important reason and come in all shapes and sizes.
There's happiness, sadness, fear, anger, excitement, embarrassment, disgust, surprise, guilt, pride, relief, and satisfaction to name the 12 emotions that researchers believe we all share.
Of course we also have many more than that too but those are ones we can often recognize through facial expressions across different cultures.
Now while most gymnasts think they have to control their emotions, I'm going to argue that controlling them is the wrong outlook.
Instead, you want to learn how to respond to them. When you control your emotions you often push them away or try to hide them. You might not even acknowledge that you're feeling them. And when you do this, you don't release those feelings which then can get bottled up and cause tense muscles or stress in the body.
Unfortunately in much of the gymnastics old school culture emotions were frowned upon. You can look back to many videos from the 90s and 00s where you see little gymnasts with stoic expressions who are not "allowed" to express their emotions. They behave like little robots.
That's not our goal.
The goal is to learn how to respond to our emotions in more effective ways.
How are emotions triggered?
Emotions are often triggered by your unconscious mind based on experiences you've had in the past. When something reminds you of a memory, your mind elicits the emotional response associated with it! How crazy is that?
Think back to a time when you've had a disappointing or embarrassing meet?
What were the emotions you were feeling?
Now imagine you go to another meet and something similar happens (ex: you fall off beam on the same skill you fell off last meet). Your brain will unconsciously elicit that same response since that was the response that become associated with that fall.
So what often will happen is that we will automatically respond to situations in ways that we don't even realize.
Here are 3 ways to manage your emotions in gymnastics:
1. Pause and breathe
This gives you time to take a breath and figure out what's going on.
Pausing and breathing will slow down any negative response because it gives your rational brain time to catch up to your primitive brain.
Your primitive brain is the fastest to respond and its response is always in line with keeping you safe. So it will often act quickly in a fight-flight-or-freeze response before you even have any idea of what is happening. This is the same response that happens when you're going through a mental block and your brain freezes up your skills.
When you slow down for a moment and take a deep breath, it gives your parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the sympathetic system which activates your fight-flight-or-freeze response) the time to kick in and realize that there is no danger.
This is also the time your rational brain needs to make better decisions.
So step one is always to take a deep breath and pause for a moment.
2. Name it
The next step is naming your emotion.
The "name it to tame it" phrase was coined by psychologist Dan Siegel. He stated that in order to control an emotion you must name what it is.
So after taking your deep breath and allowing a few seconds to pass, you might assess your feelings and say "I'm feeling angry (or disappointed or embarrassed or frustrated or mad)." This way you can acknowledge what you're feeling before attempting to respond to it.
Doing this also separates you from your emotion. Remember you are not your emotion - you feel your emotions.
3. Find A Successful Coping Strategy
The last step is to find a successful coping strategy that works for you. However, I do want to note that sometimes you just need to feel your emotions right then and there, in which case you should. But if you do this, give yourself a time limit. Let yourself be angry, sad, or disappointed for 30 seconds and then revisit this feeling after your meet or practice is over (if you want to).
Here are a few different coping strategies you can try:
1. Positive Self-Talk - have something you say to yourself in that moment that can help you get focused and back into your meet or practice mentally again. It might be something like "I've got this" or "I belong here" or "One event at a time" or "Next time" or "Focus. You can do this."
2. Listen To Music - certain types of music can elicit different emotions. If you are upset or angry, then listening to happy, upbeat music might help you tame the anger. If you're sad, you might find music that makes you smile or inspires you. If you're disappointed at yourself, you might listen to music that motivates you.
3. Imagery - think of an image that helps you refocus. For example, if you're feeling really nervous and excited, you might think of a heavy pair of weights on your feet to ground you. Mental pictures can often change your emotions and help you control them.
4. Shift Your Attention To Something Else - you can choose to focus on something other than what you're focusing on. For example, if you notice that the competition looks really good and you're starting to worry or doubt your skills, you can choose to focus on your own warmup and ignore the competitors.
5. Do Something Physical To Help Snap You Out Of Your Emotion - when you get stuck in your emotions it often means you are out of touch with your body. What you can do is something physical that will help you get back in your body. This might be snapping your fingers or jumping up and down. It might be slapping your fist or clapping your hands.
6. Take A Break - sometimes walking away from a situation is helpful in responding to your emotions. If it's a situation where you're frustrated in practice, often the best option in that moment is to take a break from the skill or event. This allows your emotions to calm down without continuing to feel that frustration over and over again.
7. Change Your Body Language - a simple switch of body language can make you feel a totally different way. If you're feeling nervous then rolling your shoulders back and lifting up your chest (a power pose) can help you feel more confident.
8. Journal It Out - when you're back at home, you can journal out how you were feeling. Sometimes writing these feelings down can help you respond to them more effectively in the future.
Those are just a few coping strategies you can try. Now think of coping strategies you've used in the past that worked for you. Different situations and feelings may call for different coping strategies. So it's best to try out a few different ones so you know which one will work for you.
It's helpful to practice responding to your emotions ahead of time. Just like any mental skill, practice in a non-stressful situation is always best in order to hone in and really learn the skill.
Right now think of a time when you got really emotional in gymnastics? How did you respond to it? What do you think you could have done differently? What are some coping strategies you're going to practice?
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