Why Punishment for Balking in Gymnastics Doesn't Work - Stick It Girl Blog

Maybe your gymnast has been there before.

She's trying to do a skill and balks halfway through, ending with a fall that leads to a feeling of being shaken up or worse yet, an injury.

It's a scary situation because often your gymnast then doubts whether she can do her skill again and/or if she does try it again, how it will end.

Will she balk again? Will she be able to do her skill?

And then boom - coach gets mad and throws her out of the gym for balking!

Now she's utterly confused and feeling really badly about herself.

The truth is, punishment for balking in gymnastics doesn't work!

To understand why, it's first important to understand why balking happens in the first place.

So why does balking in gymnastics happen?

Balking is an innate response by your gymnast's brain to something that feels like a threat. Essentially it's her fight-flight-or-freeze response taking over. Similar to the twisties in gymnastics, when your gymnast balks mid-skill, she doesn't have control over the outcome. And that can feel really scary when she's plummeting through the air and feels frozen to move through her skill.

Balking can happen for a number of reasons. But it often happens when your gymnast is least expecting it. That's why balking can feel so scary.

It might be a feeling of doubt within her to complete the skill in question. Or it might be thoughts of worry about not getting her skill. It could happen from overthinking a skill. Or even from feeling pressure to get certain skills in time for season. Your gymnast might be feeling really low in confidence or lack trust in her abilities to do good gymnastics. While the reasons behind balking might be different, the result is the same...balking can be a dangerous situation that leads to a decrease in trust in your gymnast's brain.

Bottom line, balking can be a very dangerous situation.

For this safety reason, some gymnastics coaches create rules to try to prevent gymnasts from balking.

Another reason coaches create rules around balking is that sometimes they notice a trickle effect. If one gymnast balks, they feel it can spread throughout the gym and cause more gymnasts to balk as well.

While there is some truth to this (in that if a gymnast sees another gymnast bail out of her skill midway and then get hurt, that gymnast will likely have more fear when she goes to do the same skill), throwing a gymnast out of the gym for balking isn't the answer!

The part that coaches likely don't understand is that balking isn't a choice. It's an automatic response that your gymnast can't control. Therefore the rules that coaches create often create more agony and confusion in your gymnast.

For example, in some gyms, the rule is that if you balk you are thrown out of the gym. 

When your gymnast gets thrown out for balking, she's now even more confused and undoubtedly feeling really low in confidence. She likely doesn't understand why she balked or how to prevent it from happening and now she doesn't have a chance to work on that skill again or even move on to a different skill.

Plus, and this is the KEY, being thrown out of the gym won't prevent your gymnast from balking again in the future because balking is NOT a choice!

Aside from being thrown out of the gym, other coaches might punish gymnasts for balking by having them do rope climbs or different conditioning exercises.

Again, their mindset is that if they associate balking with a negative consequence, the balking won't happen again. But like I've said, because balking is an innate (automatic) response by her brain, punishment won't prevent this from happening again in the future. It only makes your gymnast question herself more.

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So what are some things your coaches should be doing instead if your gymnast balks on a skill?

Coaches, here are 3 ideas for how to deal with balking in the gym:

1. Break down the skill into basics

If your gymnast is balking (another way of saying "freezing up") then her brain is feeling some sort of danger in doing that skill. The best thing coaches can do is break down that skill into its basics so that her brain can feel safe again.

Repetition after repetition after repetition of the basics can help your gymnast's brain trust herself again and lower the chances of her balking on the full skill if she works her way back up to it.


2. Spot your gymnast until she feels more confident

Spotting can help your gymnast feel confident and safe again. Because balking is a biological response to the danger her brain is perceiving, spotting won't cause a gymnast to be reliant on spotting. Rather, it gives your gymnast the confidence she needs to be able to do the full skill again.


3. Give your gymnast a break from the skill (without getting mad at her)

If your gymnast is repeatedly balking, it means her brain is trying to tell her something. And if your gymnast doesn't listen, her brain will keep taking over and shutting her down during her skill. If a gymnast balks two times in a row, it's time to move onto a different skill or to an easier progression of the skill.

Don't ever force a gymnast to push through balking. If you do, the balking will get worse because her brain will turn the brakes on even more. 

Just to be clear, balking and fear of a skill are two different things. If your gymnast is hesitant to go for a skill because she's scared, this is different than if she is trying the skill and bailing out of it. Balking is an automatic response.


While those are some ways to handle balking when it occurs, the best way to prevent balking is to work on building up confidence in your gymnasts. For coaches, this means positive reinforcement, lots of encouragement, and creating a positive training environment built on trust. 

As a parent, if you witness your gymnast being punished or thrown out of the gym for balking, it's worth a deeper conversation with her coach. Your gymnast should never be made to feel badly about something she cannot control. Her brain is doing its job by keeping her safe and your gymnast should be empowered to trust herself in gymnastics. Being punished or shamed takes this trust away.

While balking can be frustrating for both your gymnast and her coaches, with enough patience and positive support, your gymnast can build up trust and confidence again. The more trust and confidence your gymnast has, the smaller the chances of her balking on her gymnastics skills.

If you're a gymnast or parent of a gymnast and you've experienced punishment for balking, let me know in the comments. Let's share our stories and help one another feel supported. 




If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.


Free Mental Block Guidebook for gymnasts and their parents - Stick It Girl


Helpful Links:



Gymnastics Mental Coach Anna Kojac, M.Ed.

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