Should You Make Your Gymnast Go To Practice When She Refuses To Go

A topic that has come up more and more frequently recently is whether you should make your gymnast who has been working through a mental block go to practice when she's refusing to go.

While there is no right or wrong answer to this question, I want to give you a little background as to why this is happening with your gymnast so you can have a better perspective.

When a gymnast is going through a mental block, her brain is hanging out in "danger mode." This danger mode is causing her body to want to fight, flee, or freeze up as a safety mechanism. 

When she's in gymnastics practice, she'll often freeze by not going for skills or balking when trying them.

But when she's home and the "threat" of gymnastics is looming, the only thing her brain knows how to do is flee or evade. And that means avoiding practice altogether. This is her brain's way of protecting her from some perceived threat.

When I say "threat" I am not talking about fear of her skill. Your gymnast knows how to do the skill she is blocked on. She's likely been doing it for weeks or months or even years. 

The "threat" is more likely some perception of pressure. It could be pressure to move up to the next level, pressure to make her coach proud, pressure to stay with her friends, pressure to keep getting better. The feelings of pressure can differ from gymnast to gymnast but the overall "threat" is the same - your gymnast's brain is perceiving that pressure as danger and is signaling the danger response in her body.

So the question I push my gymnast to go to practice when she is adamantly refusing to go?

First off, I want to make clear that your gymnast is having a biological response which is something that is challenging, if not impossible, to overcome in that moment. Think of an emergency situation you've been in when you just froze up (deer in headlights kind of thing). In that moment, not much could cause you to move because your brain was creating this response in your body. 

The reason I clear that up is because many parents worry that if they allow their gymnast to skip practice, that it will then become a habit. Or worse yet, your gymnast will learn that she can avoid doing hard things.

But in the case of a mental block, these rules don't apply. Again, this is a biological response. In order for your gymnast to move through this biological response, her brain has to perceive that the threat has passed or that things are now safe. Forcing her to go into a situation that feels threatening without doing some sort of mental work ahead of time will only cause her brain to put on the brakes even more. 

So here are some of my suggestions if you're ever in this situation with your gymnast...

1. Try to make the "threat" seem less scary to your gymnast.

What this means is giving her options that feel safer to her so that going to practice doesn't keep causing her brain to want to flee.

It might be things like:

-"You have to go to practice but if you get there and you're really upset, then ask coach if you can go to the bathroom and give me a call (and I'll come get you)."

-"I'll talk to coach before you go in and explain what's going on so that coach knows to 'take it easy' on you today."

-"Today when you go to beam, ask coach if you can work on the laser beam instead of the low beam until you feel more comfortable."

Basically, you're helping to create a situation that feels safer and more manageable to your gymnast so her brain doesn't sound the alarm.

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2. Have a sit down talk with the coach and your gymnast.

If your gymnast has been going through a mental block and you haven't had a talk with coach yet, it's always a good idea to meet and come up with a plan of action (or at least make sure everyone knows the situation).

Sometimes just doing this can make your gymnast feel more comfortable in the gym because she knows her coach is aware of her mental block.

Most gymnasts don't have the ability to speak up and tell their coaches what's going on with their mental block because most don't know what is happening in their brains. Therefore many gymnasts need their parents to facilitate the conversation about a mental block. While your gymnast does need to practice her communication skills, in a time of panic is not when you should expect your gymnast to be able to do so. 

Being her advocate in the meantime is important and can help your gymnast navigate through her mental block, especially on the days when her brain is in overdrive.


3. If she's adamantly refusing to go to practice, consider giving her a day or two off from practice.

If she's in a heightened state of fight-flight-or-freeze, forcing her to go to practice is only going to cause her to go into more of a panic state. That's the last thing you want to do to help your gymnast move through her block because then she's going to form a negative association with gymnastics.

It's not a terrible idea to allow her a few days off from practice to let her mind settle and not feel the threat of danger as strongly. Allowing her to do this is not showing her that she can avoid her problems. Instead it's giving her brain a chance to regulate itself.

Remember your gymnast is one of the most hard working gymnasts out there. I know this because any gymnast going through a mental block is a hard worker as trying to move through this sort of situation is incredibly difficult, even with support.

So don't be scared off by thinking that your gymnast will think it's ok to bail when things get tough. That doesn't apply in this situation.


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It's always important to remember that your gymnast isn't avoiding gymnastics practice because this is "hard." She's avoiding it because her brain is sending her the danger signal. Your first form of action is always trying to put out some of the flames first before sending her into a roaring fire. The less "danger" she perceives, the greater the likelihood that she will continue to work through her mental block and overcome these challenging times.



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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