As many gymnasts get ready to start their competitive seasons, there's one thing I hear a lot of from parents and coaches alike. "She's doing great. But if only she had more confidence..."
While it's true that confidence is something we all could use a little more of, confidence isn't just about feeling good about yourself.
For gymnasts, it's literally the glue that holds them together. It gives them the ability to shine on the meet floor and to show up to competition as the best version of themselves.
So how can coaches help gymnasts build confidence leading into gymnastics meet season?
Here are 3 tips.
1. Make sure your gymnasts are putting in the numbers.
This goes without saying but when gymnasts are preparing for meet season, they need to put in as many numbers as possible so they have something solid to prove their readiness. One of the biggest sources of confidence comes from repeated demonstration of ability.
The more ready a gymnast feels, the higher her confidence. In contrast, if a gymnast is concerned that she isn't ready for meet season or hasn't had enough time to put together her full routines, she will likely be lacking confidence when the big day comes.
Phrases like "trust your training" have to be believable in order for your gymnasts to muster courage from them. If they've been training hard and putting in lots of routines, then they can truly trust their training when the time comes.
Now obviously there's a fine line between doing lots of numbers and not wanting to burn out a gymnast before competitions season even begins. So numbers can also include doing dance run throughs while imagining their skill passes. The goal is for your gymnasts to know their routines inside and out and to have the endurance and mental stamina to get through them consistently.
If you have gymnasts who are recovering from injury or struggling through mental blocks, imagery is a great way to get them feeling more prepared. Assign them mental routines as part of their practice or homework.
Another great way to get gymnasts to feel more prepared without putting in actual numbers is to have them create a highlights reel.
A highlights reel is a collection of various videos through the years of confident routines. Encourage your gymnasts to splice together their best routines and to watch this highlights reel every day.
One of the best builders of confidence is past success. If your gymnasts have had successful meet seasons in the past and/or done really great routines, this can give them a boost of confidence. The more they can watch themselves doing these routines, the better they'll feel leading into a new meet season. The goal, then, is to get them to "see" as many successful routines as possible.
2. Create competition like scenarios as often as possible.
One of the biggest things that gymnasts need to do to prepare for competition season is get themselves into a competition mindset mode.
Gymnastics is a sport where much of training is done in practice mode. Summer, pre-season, post-season...those all span months and months. Competition season itself is only a handful of meets over a relatively short span of time. To compound this, actual competitions compose a very small percentage of actual time in a gymnast's career.
Therefore it's common for gymnasts to go into competition season still in practice mode.
A practice mindset is one of perfecting skills, trying things over and over, and picking skills apart or breaking them down until they get them right which isn't possible during competition.
A competition mindset, on the other hand, is one of trusting your training, going with the flow, and hitting on command.
Gymnasts who don't make the switch from a practice mindset to a competition mindset may find themselves unprepared for competition season. When they have to do single routines at meets, they often can't put up their best effort because they haven't trained their body and mind to hit for these single routines.
Coaches can create competition environments in the gym as often as possible leading up to competition season. However, please note, this does not mean increasing the pressure they are already feeling as meet season approaches. It simply means getting them into new habits of performing routines with less prep as they will do in competition.
This might mean:
- Having gymnasts practice their competition warmups and then do one single routine in front of their teammates to simulate a competition setting.
- Narrowing down to one single correction instead of giving gymnasts a laundry list of corrections to make. After all, in competition it's about being able to do your best with what you have in that moment. If you're getting very picky as a coach, then your gymnasts will continue to stay in a practice mindset mode.
- Encouraging gymnasts to keep going through their routines when they make mistakes. For example, if a gymnast is working her bar routine and falls, instead of letting her repeat the beginning again, have her pick up from where she fell and finish her routine.
With that said, there is one major exception to the ideas above. If a gymnast is struggling through a mental block, do NOT take away spots or mats to prep her for competition. While many coaches think they need to get their gymnasts used to what the competitive environment will be like, when gymnasts have mental blocks their brains are in fight-flight-or-freeze mode.
These gymnasts absolutely NEED to continue to build trust with their brain and their body. This may require mats and spots leading up to actual competition (and possibly spots during competition as well). It's always better to have these gymnasts take the deduction for being spotted than to push them too soon to try skills solo that their brains are saying no to.
These gymnasts might even take the deduction for not doing a skill if they aren't ready to compete it. If worse comes to worst, then scratching an event is an option. But allow these gymnasts to continue to get what they need during practice to keep building confidence through their mental block.
3. Encourage your gymnasts to use mental choreography consistently.
If you haven't already, help your gymnasts create mental choreography for each of their routines. Mental choreography is a way of keeping your gymnasts' minds focused during their routines so it prevents the self doubt and negative thoughts from creeping in.
Mental choreography is when your gymnasts think/say one word for every element or skill in their routine. This can be something as simple as naming the skill they are doing (back walkover) or saying a word to remind them of what they need to do (block, push).
In compulsory levels, coaches can create mental choreography for each of the routines and teach it to all the gymnasts to learn. You can even practice it as a group out loud so they get it down.
In optional levels, your gymnasts can create their own mental choreography that goes with their routines.
The goal is for your gymnasts to memorize these words and to say them every single time they practice their routines. This can apply even during dance run-throughs or imagery.
The more they can do this consistently, the more prepared they will feel come competition. When they get up to compete, they can simply remind themselves to say their words and then their brains take over automatically during their routines.
Bottom line, confidence is built through past successes (highlights reel), feeling prepared (putting in the numbers), and keeping the negative/doubt thoughts out (mental choreography).
Making that switch from practice mindset mode to competition mindset mode is also very important to your gymnasts' success this season. Be sure, as a coach, you are creating situations that feel more like competition in the gym by having gymnasts go through their competition warmups and routines and having them follow through with skills even when they make mistakes.
However, one big caveat, is that you do not need to add to the pressure gymnasts are already feeling as meet season approaches. Countdowns to competition can be eliminated. They cause more nerves than necessary in many gymnasts. Constantly holding the fact that meet season is coming over your gymnasts' heads is also not necessary. By following the tips above you can help your gymnasts make the shift to competition mode with as little stress as possible.
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