As a parent (and coach), there's nothing more you want to see than your gymnast working hard and reaching her goals.
But what if instead you see your gymnast barely trying in practice?
What if your gymnast isn't motivated?
Maybe she's shuffling around, moving mats for others, avoiding taking turns, and generally unmotivated. Or maybe you notice that she gets frustrated a lot and gives up quickly.
This lack of motivation is something parents bring up to me a lot. What's even more ironic is that it tends to be the gymnasts with tons of potential who often seem less motivated.
Motivation itself is a tricky subject. Research still holds varying perspectives about what makes a gymnast feel motivated or unmotivated. But modern research has shown motivation to be dependent on both internal tendencies of the gymnast herself as well as environmental factors such as the environment in which she trains (i.e. coaching plays a role).
Overall, gymnasts feel and act more motivated when they think they can do their skills and drills (or what is being asked of them in that moment) and when they feel they have some sense of control over their participation in gymnastics. If you diminish these factors, motivation typically decreases.
So is your gymnast who appears to be unmotivated really unmotivated?
There are a number of reasons gymnasts might appear to be unmotivated in the gym. I go through some of these reasons below.
Reasons why your gymnast might appear to be unmotivated in gymnastics:
1. She's struggling internally.
If your gymnast is going through a mental block or is coming back from an injury, her brain might still be signaling to her that things aren't safe. To your gymnast, it feels like the brakes are on or that she is avoiding doing certain skills. To you it looks like she's not trying.
It's important that you recognize whether your gymnast's fight-flight-or-freeze mode is still activated. Often your gymnast can live with an active stress response for a long time after an injury has passed (especially if she had a fall or got seriously injured). And the stress response will also be active for as long as she is going through a mental block.
Therefore, while it might look like your gymnast isn't motivated, it's really her brain that's taking over and telling her to avoid a skill or freeze up on it. In this case, she doesn't feel she is able to meet the demands of what gymnastics is asking of her in that moment.
2. She has a hard time speaking up and/or has social anxiety.
Gymnasts who are on the shy side often get overlooked in gymnastics practice. They aren't ones to advocate for themselves because they are naturally quiet and timid. Throw in a "mean" or aggressive coach and your gymnast will likely try to make herself unseen in practice to avoid negative criticism or attention.
As a result, she'll often look unmotivated because she isn't doing a lot in practice. But actually she might be very motivated, just too scared to ask for help or for her coach to repeat a correction (so she might not even be sure what she's supposed to be doing).
In this case, your gymnast might not feel like she has control over her decisions in the gym.
3. She's tired or over-scheduled.
Is your gymnast training hours and hours in the gym? Is she overloaded between school and gym and other activities?
It's possible she's tired at practice. She might avoid turns or doing skills because she doesn't have the energy to complete them. Her brain knows it isn't safe to push it when her body is tired and it will naturally cause her to avoid working on her skills as a protective mechanism.
In this case, some rest and a break can go a long way! In addition, giving your gymnast a choice as to which activities she does and what things she can drop from her schedule can help her feel more in control.
4. She's burnt out.
A gymnast who is burnt out often is less motivated. But not because she doesn't love gymnastics or want to do it, but because her brain is going into a protective shut down mode.
If you think this might be the reason, check out my article on burnout here for more signs and symptoms of burnout in gymnastics. Again, this is about a sense of control. Often gymnasts who feel burnt out feel like they are being "forced" to continue to do gymnastics and/or are getting injured or not able to learn harder skills which makes them feel unable to meet the demands of gymnastics in those moments.
5. She has an attention disorder and/or her brain is hard-wired differently.
Gymnasts who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or are hard-wired in a neurodiverse way) may appear to be unmotivated. However, it is not a lack of motivation that is the cause. Their brains are hard-wired differently and need different stimulation to keep them focused.
If you remember, Simone Biles had trouble focusing in the gym because of her ADHD diagnosis. From various documentaries, it is clear to me that her coach used different methods of motivating Simone in the gym, including keeping the number of repetitions lower so she wouldn't get disinterested.
Again, this is a case where your gymnast might not feel like she has the ability to meet the demands of gymnastics because she is constantly being reprimanded for not paying attention or doing the wrong thing.
6. She's afraid of the consequences
If your gymnast is in an environment with a "mean" coach and fears what that coach might say or have her do, then chances are your gymnast is keeping a low profile. In a gym like this, it's common for gymnasts to not want to take as many turns because they worry about getting criticized or punished.
As a parent, it's important to recognize when a coach isn't the right fit for your child. Remember, positive coaching is what you're looking for. The old-school methods of negativity, criticism, and punishment are NOT acceptable! Those ways damage self-esteem and can cause your gymnast to give up. And at the end of the day, your gymnast feels like she has no control over her situation.
7. She compares herself to other gymnasts.
Gymnasts who are very focused on how well they do compared to their teammates might avoid doing skills (especially in the learning phase) because they don't want to see inferior to their teammates. They might feel as though if they can't do it right, they will be judged. This holds true for gymnasts with perfectionist tendencies as well.
While your gymnast might really WANT to get better at gymnastics, her own belief system might be holding her back from learning new skills or doing ones she doesn't feel are good enough yet. Again, this is a case of not feeling like she has control over a situation.
8. The focus is on scores and results.
Unfortunately, a lot of gymnastics (and sports in general) is dominated by extrinsic reinforcements. Scores, medals, and scholarships are all examples of extrinsic rewards.
If you've ever asked your gymnast a question like "Did you do your skill?" or "What was your score" then you may have inadvertently reinforced this extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation can often de-motivate a gymnast who is intrinsically motivated. It can also make doing gymnastics not as fun!
This is often why gymnasts seem to be less motivated around big meets like States and Regionals. The pressure to do well causes them to feel incapable of doing well. This might make them less motivated to want to compete at all.
In all of the situations above, there are other factors that are causing it to look like your gymnast is unmotivated. But in reality, she's just bogged down by these limitations and/or situations that might be causing a lack of motivation. If you can pinpoint what possible factors are in play, you can help your gymnast regain her motivation. Again, the goal is to help your gymnast feel competent and in control of her gymnastics journey.
So how do you tell if your gymnast is actually unmotivated?
Unmotivated gymnasts often appear disinterested. They might get distracted easily and prefer to chat with teammates rather than take another turn. They do the assignment but give it little effort. Their form is sloppy and they don't make the corrections even after multiple attempts. They might resist going to practice or show interest in other activities. They might not be very good at gymnastics but feel forced to continue doing it.
However, if your gymnast shows a strong interest in gymnastics but appears unmotivated in the gym, chances are it's because of one of the reasons I mentioned above.
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