Falling on a skill in gymnastics can be a traumatic event. And it's one that can make your gymnast fearful of doing that skill again for a long time afterwards.
It's incredibly frustrating watching your gymnast have to face fear over and over again. But it's especially difficult when she gets stuck on a skill she was able to do just fine before her fall.
So how do you help your gymnast learn how to do her skill again after she's had a fall on it?
While there is no straight forward answer to this question, the key is similar to overcoming a mental block. And at the cornerstone is patience, patience, and more patience!
First, it's important that your gymnast approaches the skill again with an attitude of having compassion for herself. She fell doing this skill and it is scary for her brain to think about doing the skill again. She must be ok with relearning the skill from the beginning, working back up from the very basics.
Second, she has to remember that it will take time for her to get her skill back. All gymnasts' brains work differently and depending on how traumatic the fall was, it could take a while for her brain to trust her body again.
I also want to mention that while fear may happen to your gymnast after having a fall, it might also happen to her if she's witnessed a teammate fall or heard about the possibility of falling. I see this a lot in my little ones who are working on that jump from low to high bar. Sometimes the thought of grabbing the high bar is scary because of the potential to peel off and hurt themselves on the way down. If this describes your gymnast, she can still use the strategies below, even if she's never actually fallen on her skill.
Below are some key strategies to help your gymnast get over her fear and do her skill again after she's had a fall.
1. Your gymnast has to tame her monkey mind brain and give it something helpful to focus on
Imagine your gymnast's mind is like a curious little monkey who runs around stealing sunglasses off tourist's faces. Her mind is constantly looking for the next exciting thing and will follow the path of negativity, since that's what's swirling around the most in her brain. Thoughts of "What if I fall again," "What if I can't do it," "What if I balk in the middle," or "What if I get hurt" are all things that might be going through your gymnast's monkey mind after a fall.
One of the best ways to tame the monkey mind is to give it key words. Key words are words your gymnast can say to herself as before, during, and at the end of her skill. They keep her mind focused on what it has to do instead of allowing it to drift off into negative land.
Key words can be different for each gymnast and might include things like naming the skill she's doing, saying technical reminders, repeating motivational phrases, or even singing the alphabet! Counting can also be a helpful strategy to keep her mind focused.
In order for this to work effectively, your gymnast must decide on key words and use them all the time, including during drills, walk throughs, progressions, and routines.
2. Your gymnast has to create new neural pathways in her brain
Fear in some ways is a habit. She had a fall and her brain immediately felt fear. If she couldn't make herself do the skill again right afterwards, chances are she got into the habit of not doing her skill anymore.
Often this is why coaches will make gymnasts get right back up and do their skill immediately after they fall. The thought process is if they make the skill not so scary to the gymnast's brain, she will be able to go for it again.
Unfortunately, because your gymnast's brain goes into fight-flight-or-freeze mode immediately after her fall, it can be challenging to break this feeling. Her brain's protection mechanism is a strong one and its goal is to keep your gymnast safe.
One way to create new neural pathways is for your gymnast to walk through or mark her skill in her mind. By imagining herself doing her skill again, this activates the same neural pathways as if she was actually doing her skill in real life.
To do a walk through your gymnast can close her eyes and imagine herself doing her skill but also use some body gestures to make it feel more real. Let's say it's her tumbling pass she fell on which was a round off back handspring back tuck. So she might actually do a hurdle, then turn as if she had done a round off, then arms up as if she's going for a back handspring, then chest down as she coming out of the back handspring, then arms up to block for her tuck, one knee up to her chest, then chest down as she's coming around in her tuck, and then arms and chest up to finish.
The more realistic she can make this feel, the better. In addition to just marking through her skills, she should incorporate those key words while doing this as well. By doing this over and over, she is creating new neural pathways of going for her skill instead of reinforcing the old neural pathways of not doing her skill.
3. Your gymnast has to break her skill down into the basics
When your gymnast has fallen on a skill and is now afraid to do it, she often has to start from the beginning as if she's learning the skill again. While this can be frustrating and time consuming, it's the best way to reassure her brain that she is safe.
One way to do this is to create a Confidence Ladder. Her and her coach can come up with a plan to start with the basic progressions and then move up slowly after she's put in enough repetitions for her to feel totally safe on each rung of the ladder.
The key to using a Confidence Ladder is that each rung not be too much of a jump up from one progression to the next. It's also important that she stays on a lower rung of the ladder for as long as she needs to. If your gymnast moves up to a harder rung but then balks or is afraid, it means she's not ready and has to move back down to a lower rung.
By doing this slowly, your gymnast's brain can learn to trust her body again which will allow it to let her body go for her turns more consistently.
4. Your gymnast needs a coach who is supportive and on board with helping her re-learn her skill
This last one is key because without a supportive coach, your gymnast will struggle with this for much longer than she needs to. With an impatient coach, your gymnast will become frustrated more easily. Her confidence will plummet. She may feel "stuck." And ultimately she might feel not worthy since coaches tend to pay less attention to gymnasts who stop doing skills they could already do (that's a generalization - there are some wonderful coaches out there, but many coaches put their time and attention into gymnasts who are performing well)!
Sometimes getting a coach on board requires a meeting with the coach where you discuss a plan for getting through your gymnast's fear. If you set this up and find your coach is not interested in creating a plan for your gymnast or brushes you off by saying that your gymnast just has to do her skill, then those are key indicators your gymnast's coach is not going to be helpful in this process.
You might have to set up a private lesson with your gymnast's favorite coach, who might not be her regular coach. Usually there is one coach in the gym who is more patient or willing to work with gymnasts who are struggling. If you have a coach like this, work with this coach as much as possible!
While it's drastic, sometimes you might even need to switch gyms to get your gymnast the help she needs. Sometimes the culture in your gymnast's current gym is very old-school or punitive-based. This can perpetuate your gymnast's fear about doing her skill.
Ultimately the goal is to get your gymnast back to doing her skill again after she's had a fall. While there is no quick way to get your gymnast over her fear, there are some strategies that if done consistently will work over time. Your gymnast must accept that it takes patience and compassion for herself to get back her skill.
By giving her mind something specific to focus on while doing her skill, that will help her tame her monkey mind and prevent it from drifting towards negative thoughts. She must also create new neural pathways in her brain that reinforce her doing her skill. This comes through walk throughs that are as believable as possible done over and over and over again. Your gymnast must also be willing to break down her skill into the basics and relearn it as if it is a new skill. Finally, finding the support she needs to get through this process is important in helping your gymnast get over her fear.
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