In light of the recent number of high-level athletes who have either pulled out of competition to focus on their mental health or have caused themselves harm due to their poor mental health, it's important to know when your gymnast's mental health might be at risk.
Please note: This is not meant to be professional medical advice. If you are concerned about your gymnast, please take her to a medical professional who can help her through her mental health issues. This is meant to serve as a guide for you to be more aware of what your gymnast might be going through.
Simone Biles set the example in Tokyo by pulling herself out of the team competition citing mental health issues. And while she showed other gymnasts that even someone who seemed to have it all together, might not actually have it all together, there still hasn't been enough awareness around the issue of mental health in the sport of gymnastics.
As a mom, you know full well the stress your gymnast is under, whether self-imposed or otherwise. She might feel the need to be perfect, to compete her best, to prove her worthiness to her coach, or to continue to improve season after season.
To add to that stress, during the season your gymnast is constantly being judged by judges during meets. And that doesn't stop once her competition ends. In practice, her coaches blatantly tell her what she needs to "fix" in order to be better (i.e. what she's doing wrong). And they also have the power to decide if she's ready to compete her big skills or not.
Mental Health Issues Aren't New In The Sport of Gymnastics
The demands put on gymnasts are something that have been cited as being unhealthy even before the book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan came out in 1996. And yet it feels to me that until recently, many of these issues got swept under the rug as the culture of old-school gymnastics continued to dominate the environment in which gymnasts competed.
While some changes have been made in the past few years in artistic gymnastics culture, it's still not enough to rely on your gymnast's coach to have a pulse on your gymnast's mental health.
In a sport like gymnastics, it's easy for gymnasts to lose sight of the big picture of learning new skills and having fun, and to get stuck in the overarching stress and anxiety that is inherent to competitive gymnastics. And unfortunately coaches often add to this.
While I typically recommend that gymnastics moms take a back seat to their gymnast's journey in competitive gymnastics, what I do advocate for is that you, as her mom, are aware of the red flags that signify that gymnastics is taking a toll on your gymnast.
Please hear me when I say that it is NEVER wrong to step in and advocate for what your gymnast needs on a mental health level. That may be having a conversation with a toxic coach, switching gyms, or getting your gymnast into a more supportive environment. Ultimately you want your gymnast to leave the sport of gymnastics (hopefully many years from now) having learned positive, healthy mental skills that will contribute to her becoming a capable, happy, and emotionally-stable adult.
How to know if your gymnast is at risk for poor mental health:
1. She has a ton of potential but can't seem to put it together when it counts
Your gymnast might be extremely talented but falls apart during competition. Or she might have some of the best skills in the gym but battles with mental blocks consistently enough that she often can't perform those skills at all. A gymnast like this is under a lot of stress which can compound as competition season unfolds, especially if she is progressively getting worse as the season goes on.
2. She is constantly comparing herself to her teammates
Gymnasts who play the comparison game tend to put more pressure on themselves. If you hear things like "Why can't I do a series like (Alexa) can?" or "I'm the worst gymnast on my team" or "Why can everyone else do it and I can't?" then you know your gymnast is constantly focused on how she stacks up against her teammates. While some healthy comparison can motivate certain gymnasts, a gymnast with unhealthy expectations can wither away when playing the comparison game.
3. She never seems satisfied or is a perfectionist
Your gymnast might be the one who is constantly pushing herself to be better and yet never takes the time to acknowledge her achievements. Things never seem good enough for her. If she achieves a goal in gymnastics, she might filter it through the lens of "I still made mistakes" or "It wasn't good enough." She's unforgiving of herself and relentless in her pursuit to be the best. While elite gymnasts might have some of these traits, there is a healthy balance that must occur between pushing herself, accepting her failures, and rewarding her efforts.
4. She has a toxic coach or is being bullied by her teammates
If your gymnast is in an unsupportive environment, she will have a harder time navigating through her mental health struggles. Toxic coaches can make a gymnast believe things about herself that aren't true. And those beliefs will majorly affect her self-esteem.
In addition, being bullied by a teammate/s is detrimental to a gymnast's self-worth. In fact, adolescents with high levels of suicidal thoughts are often bullied at school. While gym is a different environment than school, the effects of bullying are equally as detrimental, if not more so.
Gymnastics is NOT a sport where you want your gymnast questioning her abilities or confidence levels because of the level of trust needed to perform such challenging skills. It's also a place where she spends A LOT of time with her teammates and coaches. If there are toxic relationships happening in the gym, it's a sign that your gymnast needs to get out.
5. She talks about her body flaws
Your gymnast might feel the pressure to maintain a certain body type or to look a certain way. And if, according to her, she's too tall or too muscular or built bigger than her gymnastics counterparts, this can cause her stress. Gymnasts are at higher risk for eating disorders than non-gymnasts because of the emphasis on maintaining the perfect look. They may also mistakenly believe judges score thinner gymnasts higher. Or their own coach may have made comments about their body. There are even coaches who still weigh their gymnasts, especially at the collegiate level.
This emphasis on body type and weight can cause pressure on your gymnast to take drastic measures to look a certain way in fear of not being seen as good enough. In addition to those drastic measures, the psychological impact of feeling "not good enough" can cause long-term harm.
6. She spends a lot of time on TikTok or other social media platforms
Female adolescents who engage in social media are more likely to judge and compare themselves. With the uptick in gymnasts who have their own cell phones, it's easy for them to get sucked into watching TikTok influencers who seem to have it all.
And while I admire certain elite gymnasts with a big social media presence, I'm astounded at how unrealistic and false they portray their lives to be in front of the camera. In addition, other non-famous gymnast can show off only their best accomplishments, making your gymnast feel like she's alone in her struggles.
Young gymnasts don't have the capacity to distinguish between reality and what they see on social media. And this can contribute to their feelings of unworthiness or not being good enough. If your gymnast is always on her phone, it might be time to investigate how she is spending that time. It's also worth having a conversation with her about reality versus TikTok.
Those are just some of the risk factors that might be in play for your gymnast. Again, this is meant to be a guide so you have an awareness and starting point as to what to look for in your gymnast. Not all gymnasts experience the same amount of distress over the things listed above. However, these are factors that I often see in gymnasts who struggle the most with poor mental health. Again, this is not a medical diagnosis!
Now that you have an idea of some things that contribute to poor mental health in gymnasts, here are some things you can do as her mom to encourage healthy mental health behaviors.
Things you can do to help your gymnast with her mental health:
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1. Have an open line of communication between you and your gymnast
Encourage communication between you and your gymnast. This doesn't mean chewing off her ear or asking zillions of questions after practice or a meet. It means letting your gymnast know you are there as a listening, non-judgmental ear when she needs support. It's giving her the time of day for her to figure out her words and communicate them to you.
And when she does talk to you, it's about really listening to what she's saying and not interpreting her thoughts through your own adult lens or invalidating her feelings. You also shouldn't judge her thoughts because if she's saying it, it feels real to her. Always validate how she feels. This will make it more likely that she'll come to you in the future when she needs to sort through a different struggle.
2. Create touch points throughout the week for connection
Maybe once a week you plan a game night or movie night with your gymnast. Perhaps you have a non-negotiable dinner together as a family every day. Hugs go a long way, even if your gymnast seems to resist them. Any consistent "touch points" that you can have with your gymnast help build connection and trust.
Adolescents who are more supported at home have higher levels of self-worth and are more trusting of themselves and their parents. Make sure your gymnast has a chance to connect with you throughout the week. If not, rearrange your schedule to build those moments in.
3. Model healthy mental health behavior for your gymnast
Your gymnast is always watching. Show her what it means to take your own mental health seriously. Have balance between work and fun. Show her how you take time to nurture your body or psychological well-being. And if you don't do these things, it's time to start.
Quit gossiping or being overly negative. Model out loud the way you talk back to yourself when you have negative self-talk. It's important that your gymnast realizes that negative thoughts and behaviors happen to everyone but that there is a more healthy way to deal with them than accepting them as true.
4. Take some time to observe the environment in her gym
What is climate like in her gym? Are the coaches encouraging and supportive or negative and berating? Remember - regardless of the number of "champions" your gymnast's gym has produced, negative coaching methods are never acceptable. Pay attention to her coach's verbal language as well as body language. Does it feel like a place you'd want to hang out yourself?
Also, how is her relationship with her teammates? Does she seem to get along with all her teammates or do you notice ones she has negative encounters with? Gymnasts won't always tell their moms when they're being bullied so it's important that you observe the interactions between your gymnast and her teammates periodically to see what they're like.
5. Let her know you love her no matter what
Many gymnasts feel pressure and think that if they don't win or excel in gymnastics, they will no longer be loved by you. While this may not be the case, when you praise your gymnast for her results and not her progress, she will come to feel she is only as good as her scores.
Be sure to emphasize to your gymnast that win or lose, you love her no matter what. And don't just say this once. Make it a habit to continuously tell your gymnast so she truly hears it. In addition, make sure you're not all talk. If your gymnast has a rough meet and you ask her why she didn't do better, you're invalidating that you love her no matter what. Also watch the way you react to her negative meets and practices. Your gymnast can interpret these reactions as negative and internalize them.
6. Be on the lookout for any changes in behavior
Often a gymnast at risk for mental health issues will exhibit behavior changes such as getting more withdrawn from her teammates, shutting down her emotions, or not finding joy in things she once found joy in. If your gymnast seems upset, depressed, or tired more than usual, it's worth looking into. She might need a break from gymnastics or time to find her joy again outside of the gym.
Changes in behavior don't necessarily happen in all gymnasts who are at risk for mental health issues, however. But if your gymnast does seem to be a "different" gymnast then chances are she's struggling and needs support. It's also possible that she's outgrown gymnastics or has developed other interests that she wants to try out instead of gymnastics.
7. Get your gymnast the support she needs
Whether it's talking to a mental performance coach or going deeper and taking your gymnast to counseling, it's important that you support your gymnast when you see her struggling. While gymnastics is only one part of her life, it's a big part for most competitive gymnasts. And many gymnasts identify with being a gymnast. If she cannot disassociate herself from her sport then she will be at risk for even more mental health issues when she eventually leaves the sport of gymnastics.
Being the tough sport that it is, gymnastics can shine a light on your gymnast's coping mechanisms. You can see a reflection of the person she is and how she handles adverse conditions. Most children/adolescents don't have enough experience to know how to cope effectively with the issues that pop up as a gymnast. So seeking and utilizing support is an important part of maintaining balanced mental health.
8. Trust your gut
If things feel off or you're concerned about your gymnast's mental health, then chances are your gut is right. Again, if your gymnast is in an unhealthy environment and you keep brushing it off because you think that's the culture of gymnastics, think again!
Regardless of what the culture might be, if your gymnast isn't thriving, it isn't the right culture for her. The best place for your gymnast to become a champion is in an environment that gives her the support she needs when she needs it, despite whether that is considered the "best" gym in town or not. As a wise 13 year-old gymnast once said to me "The best gym doesn't always mean the right gym."
I hope this article helps you gain awareness as to which gymnasts might be more disposed to unhealthy mental health patterns. Again, this is only a guide and is not to be considered medical advice.
When in doubt, trust your own gut and do what you know deep down is the best thing for your gymnast. Mental health is an important part of creating healthy adults as well as helping your gymnast be a happy adolescent who can thrive and enjoy her sport to the fullest.
It's never wrong to step in when you feel your gymnast's needs aren't being supported. While we hope our gymnasts have the skills to advocate for themselves, most often they haven't developed these skills. So it is our job to look out for their well-being.
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