Connecting skills can cause stress in your gymnasts, especially if it's a connection they are struggling to get back.
Two of the biggest mental blocks I see the most in the gymnasts I work with are the loss of connection in a gymnast's beam series (typically the back handspring-back handspring connection in Level 8) and loss of connection in some form on a back tumbling pass on floor (either the connection between the two back handsprings or between the back handspring and the back tuck/layout/full).
I've spoken to plenty of gymnasts about this loss of connection and one of the biggest things that I keep hearing over and over from them is a fear of balking on the second skill.
More specifically, many of the gymnasts who have this fear have often balked on the second skill in the past and either landed on their back or really spooked themselves out.
Sometimes it hasn't happened to them personally, but they've seen a teammate do something like that and it scared them. They then carry that fear of something similar happening to them.
This causes them to develop a fear of having too much power and worrying that if they balk midway through their second skill, they will get hurt.
Now fear is tricky because your gymnast's brain is meant to protect her. And if it feels any uncertainty about the safety of a skill, it will stop your gymnast from going for her skill.
This freeze response is helpful if your gymnast is crossing the street and a fast car comes whizzing by. In that case, when your gymnast's brain puts on the brakes and tells your gymnast to stop moving, it can save her life.
But when your gymnast is doing a skill connection she's done many times before and her brain puts on the brakes, it can make her (and everyone else) frustrated. That frustration can lead to a dip in confidence which can then perpetuate the mental block or fear and loss of connections.
What's Going On When Your Gymnast Loses Her Connection On Beam Or Her Tumbling Pass?
On floor, typically the fear that gymnasts have is of having too much power. This is why you'll often see gymnasts who can do just a hurdle into their tumbling pass and complete it fine. But when asked to run into it, as in their routine, are unable to make the connection.
They fear that the extra power will cause them to have too much energy, and that if they do balk on their connection, they will end up hurting themselves because of the increased momentum.
If your gymnast's coach can understand this fear of too much power, he/she can devise a strategy to slowly help your gymnast build up to full power in a way that allows your gymnast's brain to feel comfortable over time doing the full pass. This might mean breaking down her tumbling pass into different elements. She might run into her tumbling pass and practice just her roundoff. Then build up to connection the roundoff to the first back handspring. And then add in the second back handspring or tuck element with a spot or extra mats.
On beam, there is also that fear of balking on the second back handspring and getting hurt on beam. This may or may not be related to extra power. Typically it's a fear of slipping on the second element and missing their hands. And it usually comes from feeling the first back handspring is "off" or not square to the beam.
This process takes time and can feel really frustrating. But the goal is to slowly rewire your gymnast's brain to feel safe going for the connected element. This usually means a ton of repetitions on the laser or low beam with mats. It means spots. It means slowly moving up to the next beam with the resi mat or big mats stacked underneath. It means taking away mats slowly to allow your gymnast's brain to feel safe at each turn.
What this process does NOT entail are impatient coaches who assume that because your gymnast has connected her series or tumbling pass in the past, that she should be able to do it again without a spot. While in theory you would expect that having done a skill would equate to being able to do a skill in the future, it doesn't work this way in gymnastics.
Your gymnast is not just a body but a complex human being with negative thoughts swirling around at all times. Couple this with pressure to get her skill and frustration or disappointment from her coaches, and it is a recipe for not doing her connections.
How Can You Help Your Gymnast Connect Her Skills Again?
1. Teach Your Gymnast To Say Helpful Words During Her Connections
Whatever the mind thinks, the body will follow. So it's important that your gymnast take note of her thoughts in those moments. What are some negative thoughts or associations that keep coming up when she goes to connect her skills or thinks about connecting her skills? If they are laden with fear then chances are her brain will never be able to go for the second skill without hesitation, if at all.
The ideal situation would be to replace her negative thoughts with thoughts that are more helpful. But sometimes this is not possible. So the next best thing is to distract her brain with thoughts that prevent her from thinking those negative thoughts.
One way I often suggest to my gymnasts is to put words to their skills so that their brain is constantly thinking about something helpful. It might mean saying the skill they are doing, such as "back-handspring, back-handspring." To emphasize the connection, she might even throw in a word in between the two back handsprings such as "back-handspring, go, back-handspring."
Keeping her mind focused on what she needs to do instead of what she can't do or is afraid of, will help your gymnast find that connection again. If those negative thoughts aren't there, she can get out of her own way and connect her skills.
2. Allow Your Gymnast To Take A Pause Between Skills
While this advice might spark some controversy, I firmly believe it's better for a gymnast to work on her series or tumbling pass with a pause between her connections rather than avoid her connections altogether.
There is one caveat though. It's ok to allow your gymnast to take a pause between skills as long as she is saying her words and actively working to decrease that pause.
The goal each week might be to decrease the pause so that her connection is closer and closer. It might even mean giving her a spot so that she goes for her connection more often than not.
Just as important is at the end of every practice/rotation your gymnast should connect her series or tumbling pass on whatever surface she can. So if she is on beam and can't connect on the actual beam, she should end her rotation by doing a few on the laser beam or tape line on the floor.
If your gymnast is tumbling on floor and can't connect her elements, have her go to the Air Track or into the pit and do her connection there. If she can't do that then a heavy spot might be necessary. Whatever the case, always end with that connection, regardless of what was going on in her practice that day. This is helping to train her brain to do her connection since her brain will always remember how she ended on that event.
If a connection is completely impossible for your gymnast, then ask her to spend a few minutes visualizing her connection before moving on to the next rotation. Visualization is a powerful tool that can help her brain fire the same pathways in her body as if she were actually doing her skill. This will cause her to find her connections in her mind first and then eventually translate that into her physical body.
3. Don't Rush The Connection By Moving Up A Progression Too Soon
One thing I see a lot is a very big jump between progressions when a gymnast is not ready for them. While it's important to push your gymnast, you want to make sure you are staying within the limits of what her brain feels is safe in that moment.
If she can do her series on high beam with two 8-inchers but then balks when you take one of them away, that progression is too big of a jump for her. Instead, consider a 4-incher on top of the 8-incher and trying that. If that is still too hard for her then add some soft mats or something else on top.
While rational thinking would assume your gymnast would be able to go for her connection when you take a small mat away, her brain isn't in a rational state when doing her connections. Her brain is living in fight-flight-or-freeze mode which throws rational thinking aside and insists on hanging out in survival mode. So taking out a ruler and showing her how little of a difference 4 inches is won't help her in this state! In fact, that can frustrate her further.
Bottom line, let your gymnast lead in deciding what she feels comfortable with doing that day. And have patience! This process can take a long time because it isn't about the physical skill connections. It's about the mental thoughts that keep getting in the way. And unfortunately, you cannot see or hear those thoughts so you do not know how strong or compelling they are to her brain.
4. Take The Pressure Off
When gymnasts lose skills or connections, the root cause is typically from pressure they are feeling to have those connections. Maybe your gymnast is moving from Level 7 to Level 8 and needs her back handspring - back handspring series in order to compete Level 8. She might have gotten that series already but then as meet season approaches, she starts to fear being left behind. She sees her teammates progressing and isn't sure she can keep up or is worthy of competing Level 8.
That same pressure develops in the jump from Level 4 to Level 5. More often than not, comparison and thoughts of not being good enough creep in. Those thoughts can make skills feel funky and that's when she balks or gets scared. And then that perpetuates a fear of her connection which can continue on until she really challenges those thoughts that are making her feel less than.
When there is pressure added to this, such as meet season approaching or a coach giving an ultimatum (you will be moved to Xcel if you don't do your connection), this can make it even harder for your gymnast to do her series or tumbling pass. Most coaches assume this is a way to motivate their gymnasts into doing their connections again. Unfortunately, for MOST gymnasts, this causes the opposite effect.
So one way to help your gymnast get back her skills is to take off the pressure she might be feeling or at least minimize them. Yes, meet season might be approaching but give her the option to compete her back walkover-back handspring series and take the deduction for now until she can get her back handspring - back handspring series back. If she can't go for her tumbling pass without a spot, then stand on the floor during meets and spot her. A deduction is much better than having her sit out at meets or get put into a lower level when these are skills she's been able to do successfully in the past.
Being in this situation is tricky for your gymnast and for her coaches. When your gymnast could do her connections and then loses them, it is confusing! But know that typically they are a result of negative thought patterns of having too much power, getting hurt, or feeling the pressure to have to do that connection.
By teaching your gymnast to say words that will keep her focused on her skills and connections at hand, you can help her avoid those negative thoughts. If you allow her to do her connections with a pause and work to decrease that pause, that can help her feel more confident. Being patient and letting her lead are also important steps, as well as taking the pressure off.
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