One of the biggest questions I get asked by parents is "How do I support my gymnast through her struggles in the gym whether it is a mental block, fear, or inconsistent skills?"
Parents wonder 'What do I do?' or 'What do I say to help her?' Or even 'Do I talk to her coach?' or 'Do I need to step in?'
I often have parents come to me and just say "Tell me what to do and I'll do it!"
As a parent you want to take your gymnast's discomfort away. It's your natural inclination to "fix" her problems and get her back to her happy self. Maybe you're tired of seeing your once confident gymnast now struggle with low confidence.
Unfortunately, in gymnastics there are SO many opportunities for gymnasts to struggle because of the massive amount of skill gymnasts have to learn! Gymnastics is a sport like no other in that respect. As soon as your gymnast has mastered one skill, it's time to learn another one. And some of those new skills just keep getting harder and more trickier to learn.
Before I give you some tips for how to support your gymnast through a mental block, it's important to remember that more often than not parents tend to make things harder on their gymnasts!
Maybe you've asked her about practice, inquired about her doing her skill, taken things away (punishments), bribed her with something she wants (trying to motivate her), been really patient and listened to her frustrations but eventually gotten upset that it's been going on for so long and maybe even asked her if she just wants to quit (after all, quitting would just make life easier for everyone!).
The reason none of these methods above work when your gymnast is going through a struggle is because her struggle isn't a motivation issue. More than anything, your gymnast wants to do her skills, be consistent, compete well, overcome fear, and show everyone that all the time she's invested in gymnastics counts for something.
But like you, your gymnast is often confused. She is frustrated, unsure of why this struggle is happening, and she is sad! At one time she could do a skill and now she can't. Or she's been working hard on a skill for months and she still can't get it. Maybe she is so afraid to work through a skill or gets yelled at by her coaches when it looks like she "isn't trying." This is a tough situation for anyone to handle, let alone a child.
Unfortunately the more you get involved, as her parent, the more pressure your gymnast feels. Her brain interprets this pressure as danger and now feels "threats" from you too, which just adds more to her negative situation.
So how do you best support your gymnast through her struggles?
1. Be her parent
All you can do is be there as her parent. Don't try to be her coach. Don't give her tips at home. Don't ask her tons of questions. When she's going through a tough time she needs someone to lean on and she needs support. She needs someone who is going to be there with open arms without judgment.
Above all, your gymnast needs you to listen. She might get in the car after practice and cry or want to vent or complain about practice or her coach.
She's not asking for you to fix it. She just wants you to listen. She needs a safe place to vent so she can get out those emotions - that frustration, that sadness, that agony. She needs to let those negative emotions go in a safe place since she can't likely vent to her coach or teammates.
So, parents, be the listening ear who doesn't offer advice or judgment.
Give her hugs and remind her that you love her for being her (not for her skills as a gymnast).
Limit the amount of questions you ask her directly, or at least in that moment when she's coming off a bad practice.
Like I said earlier, questions feel like pressure to her brain which causes her brain to shut down even more. So focus on just listening and giving hugs when needed.
2. Make sure you and coach are on the same page
While many parents like to let their gymnasts handle these situations alone ("it teaches valuable life skills"), don't hesitate to have a meeting with your gymnast's coach. If things are still stressful for your gymnast in the gym and nothing seems to be getting better, I feel that is the right time to touch base with her coach and find out more.
If your gymnast is the silent type, you might even do a weekly check-in with coach to see how things are going for your gymnast. Maybe you pull your gymnast's coach aside at the end of practice and just ask how things went that week. This can give you valuable information without having to pry it out of your gymnast. Don't assume coach will approach you when things aren't going well in the gym. They have many gymnasts to focus on and often coaches use more of a "wait and see" approach. This can mean weeks can go by before you hear about a struggle your gymnast is having in the gym.
Above all, it's really important to make sure you and coach are on the same page. This means listening to the underlying tone or feeling of what he or she is saying to you as you discuss your gymnast.
If your coach is blame-shifting your gymnast's struggles onto your gymnast, then that's the sign of a coach who isn't taking responsibility for helping your gymnast. While coaches have many gymnasts to manage, their job is still to help your gymnast become the best gymnast she can be. And if this is impossible during practice because coach can't take time away from the other gymnasts, he or she can suggest other options such as private lessons or staying later after practice.
Your gymnast's coach should never ignore her, yell at her, punish her during practice, say condescending words, or do anything punitive. Those are all red flags. Think of it this way - if your child's teacher at school was yelling at your child, giving her extra homework to punish her for not understanding a math concept, or not allowing her to go on field trips because her grades aren't good enough, you would NOT sit back and allow this! Gymnastics is no different. You're paying your gymnast's coach to take good care of her and have her best interest in mind. If you're not getting that from your gymnast's coach, you have a right to speak up.
3. Get your gymnast the proper support she needs
Are her struggles coming from a mental place? Often when a gymnast is struggling it means she has habitual negative patterns of thought that are causing her to struggle. If so, get your gymnast the support she needs from a gymnastics mental performance coach to address these issues.
Does she need to be spotted? Ask to do a lesson with the "nice" coach who agrees to spot or lets your gymnasts use mats or other props as needed.
Does she need extra time working on her form and technique? Then ask for extra time in the gym with her coach or attend open gym.
The point is, even though you as her parent shouldn't necessarily be stepping in to offer advice, you CAN get her the support she needs from outside sources.
Sometimes your gymnast might need a break from the gym if her struggles have been going on for some time. She might need a week off to give her mind a chance to breathe. Or maybe you give her a day or two off during the week to let her catch up on other things that might be stressing her out.
And finally, if you find that your gymnast isn't getting the support she needs in her current gym, it might be time to switch gyms. Don't ever go against that gut feeling that something is "wrong" or "off" in the gym. Just because a coach is touted as "the best" doesn't mean his or her methods are helping your gymnast. In fact, they might be doing the opposite of crushing her spirit and lowering her self-esteem.
Gymnasts at this age are impressionable and there's nothing more important than putting her in an environment where she will thrive. If she's been struggling for a long time, chances are the gym and/or coach isn't the best place for her. Sometimes just the competitive climate in a gym is enough to cause your gymnast to struggle more than she has to. Not all gymnasts are wired the same way which means every gymnast will respond differently to the same environment. Find the environment that brings out the best in your gymnast.
While it's really frustrating watching your gymnast struggle in the gym, it's important that you remember that your role, above all, is to be her parent. Give her the love, support, and listening ear she needs. Make sure she's well-fed, has enough sleep, and help her manage her stress levels outside of gym. Leave the coaching to her coaches. However if her coaches are part of the cause of her struggles, definitely consider meeting with them to make sure everyone is on the same page. Or if necessary, find a new gym with a more supportive environment for your gymnast.
At the end of the day, there's not one answer as to how you can help your gymnast through her struggles. Trust your gut and remember that, while gymnastics can be hard and comes with its fair share of struggles and disappointment, your gymnast should be mainly enjoying herself and thriving in her gym.
If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.
- Free Downloads: Get free gymnastics downloads to help your gymnast work on her mental skills in gymnastics.
- Stick It Girl Academy: Enroll your gymnast in my membership community where she can learn different mental training techniques and get on a weekly LIVE call with myself and other competitive gymnasts.
- 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