Is your gymnast going through a mental block in gymnastics right now?
If so, I know how incredibly frustrating it can be. Mental blocks can cause so much anguish to gymnasts, parents, and coaches alike!
I've put together this Ultimate Guide to Mental Blocks In Gymnastics so you can find out all the information you need if your gymnast is going through a mental block.
But first, make sure you grab my FREE Gymnastics Mental Block Guidebook For Parents below:
What are mental blocks in gymnastics?
- A mental block is a response by your gymnast's brain that literally freezes her from doing her skill/s. It is a biological response based on the fight-flight-or-freeze response. Her brain is telling her body not to the do the skill and is essentially putting on the brakes.
- A mental block is NOT a gymnast being lazy, unmotivated, or giving up on her skills. It is quite the opposite. Your gymnast really wants to do her skills. But her brain won't let her.
- A mental block is also NOT when a gymnast is first learning a skill and can't get it. If she is just learning how to do a skill and can't seem to do it or gets afraid when doing it, that's the learning process and not a mental block.
- In addition, a mental block in gymnastics is not actual fear of the skill. There are cases when a gymnast has a fall or gets injured doing a skill and then is afraid to do that skill again. But that is a fear issue causing her not to want to do the skill. While it can feel like a mental block, fear is a separate issue, although equally as frustrating.
- For our purposes in this article, a true mental block is when your gymnast can no longer do a skill that she's done many times in the past and it feels like it happened suddenly or "out of nowhere."
- She may go into a pattern of being able to do her skills and then blocking on them and then being able to do them again. This may last for months, even years. And it can switch skills. So one season it might be her back handspring on beam that causes her issues while the next season it might be her double back on bars. Even within one season she can lose and regain skills on different events.
- The main reason a gymnast gets a mental block in gymnastics is because her brain is experiencing some sort of "danger" signal and it is taking action.
- What becomes confusing is that this "danger" signal isn't usually based on the skill itself. In other words, it's not that your gymnast's brain is feeling danger doing the skill in question. In fact, often it's the opposite. These are usually skills your gymnast can easily do or has been doing for a while before becoming blocked.
- Instead, the "danger" signal is often something non-physical your gymnast's brain is feeling such as stress, pressure, or lack of confidence.
- To understand this, consider how our primitive brains function. Back in the cave people days, it was our brain's job to keep our body safe by continuously scanning the environment and making sure to respond to danger quickly and effectively. Our brain had to make a decision that included fleeing from the danger, staying to fight the danger, or freezing up to stay quiet and essentially blend in to the environment.
- While back then it was mountain lions and other cave tribes that posed "danger" to our brains, those threats no longer exist in our modern day times. Instead, we have more serious threats such as needing to be perfect, feeling pressure to perform and do well, being able to manage stressful activities, and other perceived threats.
- In fact, our gymnasts have so many perceived threats to their safety. Things like "What if my friends don't like me and make fun of me on social media?" or "What if I fail this exam and don't make it into a top notch college?" or "What if I let my coach down and don't perform up to what she expects from me?"
- Life in prehistoric times was more simple. Something was considered a danger if it posed a threat to physical survival. Nowadays, with social media and modern technology, many things can pose a threat to your gymnast's survival and 99% of them don't involve physical danger.
- And because your gymnast is being bombarded 24/7 with different social and self-imposed pressures, her brain is constantly living in "danger mode." Danger mode means her fight-flight-or-freeze response is constantly activated and heightened. So it doesn't take much more to send her into a full blown response.
- This is often why we see mental blocks come and go. When your gymnast has had a particularly stressful day at school or at home, her brain can easily be in full-fledged danger mode before she even gets into the gym. Then when she goes to do a skill, her brain has already reached its max allowance of danger for the day which means it acts out. And this usually means freezing on skills in the gym since fleeing and fighting aren't generally considered socially acceptable in the gym.
- This is also why mental blocks seem to come out of nowhere. Many parents get stuck on the fact that their gymnast did not have a fall on the skill she got blocked on. Again, your gymnast's brain isn't responding to the actual skill. It's responding to the perceived threats to its danger which in our modern times means all the social and emotional things going on in your gymnast's life.
- As an example, consider Simone Biles and her case of the twisties at the Tokyo Games. Her brain caused her to block on her vault and it didn't come from a fall she had on her vault. It came "out of nowhere" according to her. In actuality her block was a result of the pressure she was feeling in her life and had gotten so big her brain had reached its maximum allowance of "danger" and went into its innate safety response which meant to find a way to get Simone to stop doing her skill.
How does my gymnast overcome a mental block in gymnastics?
This is the million dollar question! The key to overcoming a mental block in gymnastics is to help your gymnast recognize the perceived dangers she might be feeling, find ways to minimize those dangers, and build back up her confidence. In fact, the longer your gymnast's mental block has been going on, the more her confidence has been depleted. And this creates a vicious cycle of perpetuating her blocked skill.
So what are the steps your gymnast needs to do in order to move past her mental block?
- First, your gymnast has to become a detective and recognize the pressures she's feeling on a day-to-day basis. Whether these are in school, home, socially, or in the gym, she needs to have a pulse on what they are. She can do this by filling in an awareness log daily after practice. Once she can grasp what her brain is bombarded with, she can then make steps to limit or minimize these pressures. That might mean having better time management, learning to communicate her feelings, asking for help with her school work, getting more sleep, or finding outside activities that she enjoys other than gymnastics for some balance. The list goes on and on.
- Next, your gymnast needs to rebuild trust with her brain. This means doing skills she feels confident doing. For her blocked skill, in particular, she can create a confidence ladder. This is where she breaks down her blocked skill into smaller progressions, with the lowest or easiest progression on the bottom rung and the blocked skill she wants to do again at the very top of her ladder. She then takes her time doing each of these progressions until each one feels absolutely easy and safe to her. This builds confidence and gives her brain the security it needs to move up on the ladder. Each rung can take 1 week to several weeks depending on how confident she feels on these progressions.
- Third, your gymnast needs to recognize when skills start to feel funky so that she can prevent another mental block from happening. This involves trusting her gut when a skill feels off and listening to her brain. When she listens to her brain, she might realize she needs a spot or a mat in order to feel safe. When she can be in tune with her brain, she can stop a mental block from progressing too far.
- Fourth, your gymnast must learn how to communicate with her coaches and advocate for what she needs. Ultimately it is her brain that is in charge and she needs to be able to speak up and ask for what she needs. This goes along with the previous step as far as advocating for a spot or mat or asking NOT to do her blocked skill if she's not feeling confident.
- Fifth, your gymnast needs to learn to work with her brain and not against it. That means not pushing through her skills or forcing herself to stand in the corner of the mat and "not go" for her skill for seconds and minutes at a time. This also involves a supportive coach who is on board with what your gymnast is doing. A supportive coach is one who agrees to help your gymnast through this challenging time, not by pushing her through her skills, but by giving her the safety that she needs. It also does not mean a coach who just lets your gymnast figure it out on her own. If you notice your gymnast being left alone a lot or being ignored, you should have a hard look at whether this is the best environment for her.
- Sixth, your gymnast needs to re-create new images in her mind of her being successful on her blocked skill. She's developed a pattern of seeing herself not doing her skill in her mind. And she probably has negative thoughts associated with her blocked skill. Your gymnast, then, needs to replace these thoughts with positive ones along with new images of her doing her blocked skill.
- Finally, your gymnast needs to have patience, as do you and her coaches. Lots of patience. Mental blocks take time because her brain has to trust her again. Trust takes time. The way her brain builds back up trust is by your gymnast giving her brain what it needs in those moments of anxiety and fear.
How To Support Your Gymnast Through A Mental Block
It's often your desire as a gymnastics parent to want to "fix" your gymnast's mental block. Anytime you see your gymnast in despair, your first inclination is most likely to want to take her pain away. But over time you might get just as frustrated as your gymnast and try different methods to try to get your gymnast through her block.
These methods might include (p.s. in case you're quickly reading, these are NOT the methods I recommend):
- bribing her
- trying to motivate her with big ticket items
- punishing her if she doesn't go for her skills
- having tough love
- pushing or coaching her through her mental block with reminders or tips
The key to remember here is that your gymnast wants to do her skill as much as you want her to. In fact, she probably wants to do it so badly and is devastated that she can't do it. So it's not a motivation issue! No gymnast wants to stand on high beam and not be able to do her skill. It's not only embarrassing, it lowers her confidence and makes her feel like a failure.
When you throw in bribes or punishments or tough love, you're making it harder for your gymnast. It just adds insult to injury. She already feels badly about herself and doesn't understand what's going on. She's totally confused and extremely upset that she can't perform the way she knows she can. So she doesn't need any extra pressure from you or her coach as these get perceived as more "danger" by her brain.
Instead, ease off. Get her the support she needs like working with a mental performance coach who specializes in gymnastics like myself or doing gymnastics privates with her coach. Have a meeting with her coach so you're all on the same page. Limit the questions you ask her after practice or about her mental block. Be there as the listening ear so that she feels safe to talk when she wants to. And don't offer a way to "fix" this for her. Instead be her non-judgmental support system.
Most of all, have patience. Trust the process. Stay the course. Bouncing around looking for the quick fix will never work long-term. As frustrated as your gymnast is, it isn't worth the long-term sacrifice to see short-term results. Sure, your gymnast can probably try to force doing her blocked skill for her upcoming meet and might even be successful. But her skill won't stick. She'll keep getting blocked on it in the future. The goal is to build up slow, steady trust so your gymnast can continue to thrive and grow as a gymnast in the future.
Here are some other articles I've written regarding mental blocks in gymnastics for your reference.
Mental blocks in gymnastics can not only be frustrating, they can cause gymnasts to quit and lose their passion for gymnastics. And yet, you (and I) know how much your gymnast loves gymnastics. It was probably a part of her life that brought her great joy and now that joy is quickly disappearing in lieu of negative feelings and lowered confidence.
The key to mental blocks is trying to catch them early. Immediately when your gymnast's skills start to feel "off" she should start keeping an awareness log so she can figure out what's going on. In addition, it's usually a good time to check-in with a mental performance coach to learn some strategies to keep her blocks at bay.
Once a gymnast has developed patterns of not going for her skill, it becomes harder and harder to turn those habits of thinking around. It's always possible to change her thinking, but deep-rooted "stuck" beliefs are more stubborn to change and can take more time.
As much as gymnasts want to move past their blocks, when they've been occurring for a long time your gymnast starts to hold onto these blocks and resists alternate ways of thinking. Her brain craves consistency and when you try to make a change it can ironically elicit the same danger response that her mental block is causing her brain in the first place. This can lead to her fleeing from change or fighting against it.
Regardless of whether your gymnast has been struggling with a mental block for a few days or a few years, there is always hope. Hold onto that hope and encourage your gymnast to do the same. Patience and hope will get you through any mental block!
I Offer a 3-Session Mental Block Jumpstart Coaching Package To Help Your Gymnast Through Her Mental Block in Gymnastics
It's not a quick fix but it will help your gymnast understand why her mental block happens and gain some valuable tools for learning how to deal with it. Plus she'll walk away with 3 chapters of my Mental Block Jumpstart Guide, including some worksheets to fill in. Click the image below to learn more.
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