Do you have a gymnast who is really tough on herself?
Gymnastics is undoubtedly one of the hardest sports there is. But I'd also argue that not only is gymnastics a hard sport, gymnasts (as a population) are incredibly tough on themselves as well.
While you can't be inside your gymnast's mind and think for her, there are some things you can do to help your gymnast be more compassionate towards herself.
Things You Can Do To Help Your Gymnast Be Less Tough On Herself
1. Praise your gymnast for who she IS and not what she does.
Gymnasts often get wrapped up in the identity of being a "gymnast." This can make things challenging for them when they aren't doing well in gymnastics. If they're going through a particularly tough season or struggling with a mental block, they can begin to associate their lack of skills with a lack of self-worth. And that's unfortunate because we all know that a 12 year old gymnast is SO much more than just a gymnast.
One of the ways you can help your gymnast is to remember to praise her for qualities she has that go beyond her gymnastics abilities. Is she kind to her friends or teammates? Is she helpful around the house? Is she a caring big or little sister? Does she work hard in school? Is she a great artist or creative in other areas of her life?
Think about traits that describe who your gymnast is as a person and remember to compliment her on those traits. Instead of saying "That was a great back handspring" focus on her efforts instead. You might say "I saw you working hard on your back handspring." This teaches your gymnast to pick up on her innate qualities of being a hard worker as opposed to feeling her worth is tied into being able to do a skill in gymnastics.
2. Be a role model for your gymnast.
As her parent, do you show her how you are compassionate towards yourself? Or are you always beating your own self up or saying negative things out loud that your gymnast can hear?
While you might not realize, your gymnast will pick up on the words and actions you exhibit towards your own self. In fact, a study by Dove done many years ago showed that young girls often have the same body insecurities as their moms, even if they are really young. For example, a mom who says she hates her legs or purposely doesn't wear skirts because of how her legs look will often have a daughter who hates her own legs, even if her daughter has no reason to hate them. There is so much power in the way you treat your own self as her mom.
Therefore, how you treat your self matters! Your gymnast sees and hears it all. And subconsciously she adapts your own demeanors as her own.
3. Write your gymnast a letter
As a fun surprise, write your gymnast a letter telling her how proud you are of her. Remind her of all her amazing qualities that make her stand out as a gymnast. Is she tall? Remind her how her height makes people notice her long lines. Is she graceful? Tell her how the way she moves is so beautiful and makes her heart shine.
Too often we discuss the things that can be improved with our gymnasts instead of focusing on all the positives. By writing a letter, you can put it all out onto paper and your gymnast can read it back to herself when she needs a boost of good feelings.
If you're a gymnast, here are some things you can do to be less tough on yourself:
1. Treat yourself like you would your best friend
One of the hardest things about being a gymnast is feeling like you have to be hard on yourself in order to be successful. This feeling might come from the type of coaching you get. Or it might come from your own assumptions that you need to be critical of yourself in order to get better. Knowing that every tenth counts can put a lot of pressure on you too. And being "yelled" at in practice or constantly corrected can take its toll.
As a result, most gymnasts I work with tend to be hypercritical of themselves, especially when they make mistakes. And with every mistake comes more negative thoughts such as "I'm such a bad gymnast" or "I can't do anything" or "I'll never get this right" or "Coach doesn't care about me."
These thoughts are often harsh and yet most gymnasts I know continue to allow themselves to engage in these thoughts after they've made mistakes or struggled to learn a skill.
One of the biggest tips I give my gymnasts is to talk to yourself like you would your best friend. If your best friend was having a tough day on beam or making mistake after mistake, you wouldn't go up to her and yell at her more. You wouldn't tell her she's a terrible gymnast or that she should just quit. And you certainly wouldn't say anything that would make her feel worse. Instead you'd do your best to build her up. You'd encourage her. You'd say nice things to her. You'd let her know that you have confidence in her and her abilities and that you know she can do it.
That is how gymnasts should practice speaking to themselves. Yet when I tell gymnasts to do this it's like some foreign language they are unaccustomed to! Most don't know what it's like to be kind to themselves. But it's so important to a gymnast's self-esteem and resilience to feel like she has someone (even if it's herself) who builds her up.
2. Embrace mistakes
While mistakes are frowned upon in gymnastics competition, they are certainly necessary in practice (and even in competition) in order to learn new skills or learn how to adjust to new situations.
When I ask gymnasts to think about how long it took them to learn their kip or giants or back handspring on beam or any other skill that often takes a long time, most want to forget about that long journey. And yet, with every turn they took and were unsuccessful, they came closer and closer to learning that skill.
Mistakes are information. Mistakes are important. You learn what to do and what not to do when you make mistakes. This allows you to adjust and get better at what you're doing.
And yet most gymnasts I talk to cringe when they think of the mistakes they've made. They tend to see this failure as final instead of a step along the way to the top of the staircase.
Therefore, I encourage gymnasts to embrace their mistakes and look at them as useful information. What can you learn from those mistakes? What's not working? What can you work to improve on? What might you be doing wrong?
3. Remember all the things you love about gymnastics
One way to stay positive and feel good about your gymnastics is to remember why you love doing it. Along the way, it's easy to forget why you love gymnastics so much. When you're putting in the effort and all that hard work, you might forget that you're doing it because it's something you love to do.
One way to remember all the things you love about gymnastics is to create a "What I Love About Gymnastics" board. This is similar to a vision board, but it has reasons that you love gymnastics on it. Maybe you think it's fun or you love flipping and learning new tricks. Or maybe you have a slight obsession with leotards! Perhaps you like competing or hanging out with your gym friends.
Whatever the reasons, be sure to put them on your board by cutting out images, words, or photographs that represent these feelings of joy about gymnastics. Then glue these things onto your board, add lots of glitter or decorations, and hang it up in your room. Having this as a reminder is a great way to remember the happy parts of gymnastics. When you keep this in mind, you can be more compassionate towards yourself because you know you're doing gymnastics because you love it.
As a gymnast, it's important that you work hard but also don't lose sight of all that you've achieved. While we all want to do better, being "tough" on yourself is not always the best way. When you're tough, your brain actually learns to trust you less and therefore pushes back. Instead try to remember that your brain is just as sensitive as your best friend and that you need to treat it kindly and with respect.
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