In this blog I'm going to tell you why your gymnast keeps losing skills right before she competes and give you some tips for how to help your gymnast through this situation.
Nothing is more frustrating than watching your gymnast hit routine after routine in practice and then as her meet approaches, she loses her skills. Or perhaps she can do her skills in practice but then gets to her meet and totally freezes up and can't do her skills.
Lately this is something I've been hearing a lot from parents. They've noticed that their gymnast can do her skills perfectly in practice but then in the days leading up to her meet she starts to lose her skills.
Coaches get frustrated! Parents get frustrated! Gymnasts are frustrated!
It's a really tough situation because things might be going really well. And then out of nowhere (or what seems like it), your gymnast all of sudden buckles under the pressure and can't do what she's capable of.
Why does your gymnast lose skills right before her meet or at her competition?
It's baffling when your gymnast is consistently hitting skills and then all of sudden starts to lose them, with no time to spare before her meet!
If it starts to happen in the week leading up to her meet, your gymnast might not have the time to try to get her skill back because coaches are busy watching routines and not working skills.
Or if it happens in warmup at a meet, your gymnast might have to scratch her routine without any prior warning which can be a really devastating situation.
Here's why this might be happening to your gymnast...
Similar to what happens during a mental block, your gymnast's brain is perceiving pressure. Any time your gymnast's brain perceives pressure, it interprets that as danger. Danger then sets off her fight-flight-or-freeze response which results in her brain shutting down her skills.
What makes this frustrating is that most gymnasts aren't aware of the thoughts they are having that are causing their brains to sense danger.
These might be things like:
- I have to hit a good routine at my meet this week
- I have to get a high score because I'm good at this event and I'm expected to keep scoring high
- I need to place in the top 3
- My coach expects me to put up a good routine
- My team needs me to score high
- I have to prove that I can compete this level
- I have to prove to my old gym that the switch I made was the right decision
Of course there are other thoughts that can also contribute to your gymnast feeling pressure. Every gymnast is different and feels things differently but those are some examples that I've heard from the gymnasts I've worked with.
So what can you do if your gymnast keeps losing her skills right before her meets?
In the moment that it happens, there's not much to be done. Her brain is in danger mode and is doing what it thinks it needs to do in order to stay safe. There's not much that can instantly reverse this response for her. Deep breathing and letting her brain know it's not in any danger is the best thing she can try.
But most of the time you just have to hang on for the bumpy ride and get through it for that meet.
Afterwards, though, it's important that your gymnast learn to identify the things that might be causing her to go into this danger response.
If she can identify these thoughts, she can then work to change her thoughts to make her brain feel safer.
How does she do that?
Well, when your gymnast starts to think about her meet and gets nervous, she's likely focused on things she can't control.
For example, she might be thinking about getting a certain score, placing in the top 3, hitting a clean routine, or making her coach happy. If you notice, these are all outcome goals. They depend on the outcome or result of what happens at her meet.
Outcome goals are scary to your gymnast's brain because her brain knows it can't control an outcome or what happens. And when she's so focused on getting a particular outcome, it causes her brain to feel uneasy about the situation.
This means that her brain will sense "danger" and do things like shut down her skills or even cause her to bail out of skills such as when she starts falling on skills she can easily do.
One way to combat this is for your gymnast to focus on the controllables.
Controllables refer to the things that are under your gymnast's control. These are things like whether she says her key words, how hard she tries, what she chooses to focus on, her attitude or mood at the meet, or whether she does her pre-meet routines or focuses on calming her nerves.
When she goes into a meet thinking "I'm going to focus on my form" or "I'm going to focus on saying my key words during my routine" or "I'm going to focus on exploding off the board" or "I'm going to focus on spotting the beam" these are all things that she has control over. If she sets goals that are within her control, her brain is happy. A happy brain doesn't shut down skills; it allows her to compete well.
The other thing that tends to happen is that when a gymnast has a tough meet and can't go for her skills or falls a lot, she often carries worries of repeating those mistakes at her next meet. So it starts a cycle of worry that escalates before her next meet and makes it even harder for her to do well.
Again, your gymnast must learn how to focus on the things she can control and set goals for herself that don't focus on the outcome, but the process.
Going back to some of the original thoughts that might shut your gymnast's skills down, she must learn how to modify these thoughts to be things that help her focus on her controllables.
Here are some examples of how she can take those original pressure thoughts and make them feel better to her brain:
- I have to hit a good routine at my meet this week--> I can't control the outcome but I can focus on my form which will help me have a good routine.
- I have to get a high score because I'm good at this event and I'm expected to keep scoring high--> I can't control what score I get but I can control how hard I try. The good score will come if I focus on my corrections.
- I need to place in the top 3--> I can't control how good my competition is but I can control where I put my attention. I can pretend I'm in a bubble and focus on doing what I need to in order to hit my routines.
- My coach expects me to put up a good routine--> I can't control what my coach thinks. Plus, if I try my hardest, I know my coach will be ok with whatever happens in the end.
- My team needs me to score high--> I can't control my score but I'm going to go out there and give it all I've got. My team will be proud of me no matter what.
- I have to prove that I can compete this level--> I can't control what other people think of me. But I'm proud of how far I've come and I know I will keep getting better.
- I have to prove to my old gym that the switch I made was the right decision--> My old gym may never think my decision to switch was right. But that's not what matters. I know I'm in the right place and I can feel good about that.
If you notice, in every case the new thought is focused on things she has control over instead of worrying about the outcome or what other people think.
When your gymnast can recognize that her nerves and feelings of pressure are coming from thoughts that are outcome-based, she can then find new thoughts that are process based and put her in control.
Hopefully this blog gave you an idea of what might be happening to your gymnast if she keeps losing her skills right before her meets. You can understand how pressure activates her brain's danger response and makes her brain want to take things into its own hands by shutting her skills down.
By understanding her pressures and then working to make them feel more controllable, your gymnast can slowly get to the point where meet pressure doesn't get to her as much. It definitely takes time and is a process to get your gymnast to recognize her thoughts and change them around. But it's worth the effort!
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