The weeks leading up to the first gymnastics competition of the season are often filled with angst and stress for everyone involved.
Coaches start to feel anxious about their gymnasts, wondering if they are ready or not to compete in a few short weeks.
Gymnasts pick up on this stress and internalize it.
Because of these feelings of pressure and stress, gymnasts then start to struggle in practice and either lose skills they once had or have trouble gaining new skills they need.
Then coaches start worrying even more because they realize that their gymnasts don't have the skills they need to compete.
Coaches might even make threats to not let a gymnast compete that level if she can't get her skills in time.
That time-pressure freaks the gymnast out and causes her not to be able to get her skill. She shuts down, withdraws, and cries or melts down during practice.
It's a vicious cycle that perpetuates itself over and over.
Yikes! No wonder I deal with so many struggles in the gymnasts I work with this time of season!
Here's the thing...
It's not possible to remove the time crunch. When meet season is coming, it's coming. And a coach can't change that date. It's fixed.
Now while there are some gymnasts who thrive under this time-pressure, the majority of the gymnasts I know and work with do the opposite when the time pressure is on. They crumble.
And believe it or not, there is a biological reason for this.
Our brains are hard-wired with a fight-flight-or-freeze response when it senses danger. I talk about this fear response a lot because it's something that comes up a lot in the sport of gymnastics.
When your gymnast feels pressure, her brain senses danger and triggers that danger response. For many gymnasts this might mean freezing up on skills. For others it means a tense body or debilitating nerves that prevent her from learning the skills she needs.
So what can we all do (parents, coaches, gymnasts) to make this time of year a better experience for everyone?
Here are some tips to help you through this stressful time of season.
1. Try to de-emphasize the meet season deadline
Yes, I know that your gymnasts either need to have the skills or they can't compete. And I know that's not necessarily something you can change. But all gymnasts KNOW this subconsciously. They know internally that if they don't get the skill then they can't compete that routine and must scratch. So putting emphasis on that fact doesn't help them. It just adds more stress to their brains.
Instead, remove any countdowns you have in the gym. Keep a summer attitude, meaning make things feel light and fun. Challenge yourself to enjoy coaching and not to feel stress around worrying if your gymnasts are ready. Remember, you can't control what your gymnasts do. You can only control the attitude you bring to the gym and the effort you put forth in helping your gymnasts.
2. Manage your own stress and expectations
As a coach, you are expected to prepare your gymnasts for competition. And that can be a big burden to carry, especially when you have gymnasts who aren't ready. Parents pay a lot of money to have you coach their gymnasts. For the most part, they expect results (although honestly the parents I work with just want to see their gymnasts happy!).
But the truth is, whether your gymnasts are able to do all their skills doesn't fall solely on you. You are not responsible for their outcome. The best you can do is keep training them to the best of your ability and let go of the things you cannot control.
When you can manage your own stress and expectations, your gymnasts feel less nervous energy and frustration from you. That enables them to trust you more and relax into their skills.
So while it's not easy to remove yourself from the expectations of competition season, remember that you can only do so much. Take care of your stress level and be careful not to put your stress or expectations onto your gymnasts.
1. Don't ask your gymnasts too many questions
When you ask your gymnast questions about what's going on in gym, she feels even more pressure. Instead, contact the coach if you have questions. Allow your gymnast to just "be" when she's in your presence.
Right now your gymnast is in a stressful time but she's also confused. She's having trouble doing skills or making her routines and she's not even sure what's going to happen. Will she compete? Will she get her skills in time? Those are some of the worries swirling around in her brain.
All of this is a lot for her brain as it is. Keeping the questions to a minimum gives your gymnast space to digest what's happening. A good habit to make is saying "Do you want to talk?" and respecting her response.
You can also remind her that "I'm here if you want to talk." Let her take the initiative to talk things out if she wants to. Don't ever back your gymnast into a corner and force her to answer questions from you.
2. Do your best to alleviate any outside stress for your gymnasts
Meet season often falls during stressful times of year - start of school, holidays, end of term exams, etc.
Your gymnast is likely already stressed and her upcoming meet season is just adding more stress to her life. One way you can help your gymnast is to figure out what you can do to help your gymnast alleviate any outside stress. Is school overwhelming? Can you lighten up her workload or get a tutor to help her? Is she not getting days to catch up? Schedule a day off every now and then to give her the break she might need.
The more you can do to provide her with an environment outside of the gym that is as stress-free as possible, the better. This also means managing your own stress that might be coming up around this time of year. If holiday shopping or family events feel overwhelming, what can YOU do to make this easier for you so you don't take your stress out on your family?
Remember, your gymnast senses your stress and can internalize it as her own. Be mindful of the stress climate in your home.
1. Stay Calm and Stay In The Present Moment
While it feels like this meet season deadline is fast approaching and that time is running out, you still have a choice over how you will approach each day.
In fact, one of the best ways to combat a stressful deadline is to stay in the present moment. When you are at practice, ask yourself if you are thinking about your upcoming meet season or are you focused on the skill you are working on right then and there. Most likely your mind is drifting off to thoughts about not being ready for meet season and all the "what-ifs" that might happen if you don't get your skills.
2. Remember what it's like to do gymnastics in the summer
Remember back to off-season when you were learning new skills and gymnastics actually felt fun? It's time for you to conjure up those feelings NOW! Sure, it's a very different time of season but that doesn't mean you can't act like it's off-season.
Off-season typically feels light and fun. It feels exciting to learn new skills. You likely approached each day as a new opportunity.
Now think about what your feelings are towards your training now. Does it feel the same as off-season training? I'm guessing the answer is no. If this is the case, try to find ways to remember the feeling of off-season.
Can you watch a video before going into practice from off-season training that made you feel good? Can you listen to some fun upbeat music in the car on the ride to practice that will leave you feeling happy and excited? Can you set some small goals for yourself in each practice that keep you focused on the process of learning instead of the end result?
The key is to FEEL lighter first and then your skills will come more easily.
While pre-meet season can feel like a stressful time of year, you can take responsibility for making things feel better. Remember that no one can control the circumstances (i.e. when the first meet is scheduled for) but you all can control the attitude you take and how you FEEL about upcoming meet season.
By remembering back to the feeling of off-season and trying to find that feeling now, gymnasts can help themselves not feel as stressed. If coaches can put into perspective that they are doing the best they can and that they cannot control whether their gymnasts learn or do not learn skills, they can lighten up the way they feel about the impending meet season. And if parents can back off from asking questions and lighten up the workload their gymnasts are feeling outside of gym, it can help their gymnasts tremendously. This is a group effort since stress can get passed around!
If your gymnast is totally blocked, as tends to happen right before season begins, reach out to me for help! I offer a 3-session coaching package that gets your gymnast started in the direction of understanding her pressures, block, and learning some tools to help her move through them.
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