Ever wonder what the root cause of your gymnast's mental block is?
Hint: it's not what you think it is.
I work 1-on-1 with a lot of competitive gymnasts and I've come to notice that most mental blocks stem from reasons that are much deeper than fear or something having to do with the skill itself.
In my experience, most mental blocks come from a flawed belief system about a gymnast's abilities or about the expectations she puts on herself.
While I talk about pressure and stress in my Gymnastics Mental Block Guidebook for Parents, I want to dive deeper into this concept to hopefully offer you more insight into what might be going on with your gymnast.
First off, the majority of gymnasts who end up with mental blocks tend to be perfectionists who set incredibly high (and often unrealistic) standards for themselves.
They not only want to be the best, but they demand perfection or a flawlessness that is often impossible to achieve.
This perfectionism not only gets in their way of achieving more success, it can put so much pressure on their brain that it automatically goes into fight-flight-or freeze mode. That's when skills start getting blocked.
Secondly, many of the gymnasts I work with breezed through the early levels with ease or speed; some even skipping a level (aka testing out after one meet).
Then they hit up against road blocks in the lower or higher optional levels and don't know how to handle these challenges.
Now, to be clear, it's not the road blocks that get them. It's the expectation that they have to keep getting better and prove that they are still the best gymnasts that puts pressure on their brain.
When they hit a road block they often freak out because it represents an obstacle they haven't had to face before. And since the earlier levels were "easy", they don't have the grit developed to learn how to push through them without losing hope. This causes a mini freakout that sets their brain into high alert.
Also, because these gymnasts excelled in earlier levels, they often garner the attention of their coaches. When they hit rough patches, a lot of coaches will continue to help them to a certain extent but then often withdraw attention. This is not what a good coach does but it's often what happens. Coaches often put their time and energy into the gymnasts they feel are the most talented.
And again, these gymnasts may hit a road block and let it really shut them down because they don't have the experience dealing with this sort of thing. This switch in attitude from a very focused, hard working gymnast to one who is frustrated and gives up hope often elicits a response in their coaches where they inadvertently withdraw their attention away from the gymnast.
There are many sources of pressure but some of the most common ones I see are:
- Not wanting to disappoint a coach
- Feeling like you have to keep improving or maintain pace with your teammates
- Wanting to prove that you belong on the team or in that gym (this often happens when a gymnast switches to a new, more competitive gym)
- Not wanting to be left behind (aka all your other teammates are learning the skills to move up to the next level but you're struggling with an element that's needed to move up)
- Feeling like you're only worthy of being noticed if you win or achieve the highest scores
When I work with gymnasts I really try to get to the root cause of their belief system.
Do they doubt their self-worth? Do they need the attention of their coaches to validate their feelings of being good enough? Are they afraid that not being the best will mean they don't get recognized or seen? If they aren't perfect, will they worry about what their parent or coach thinks of them?
Honestly, most mental blocks really have nothing to do with gymnastics itself. Gymnastics just happens to be the vehicle by which their underlying struggles are exposed.
Now while I can see similar patterns of thinking in most of the gymnasts I work with, I also come across gymnasts who don't necessarily "buy into" these deep underlying thoughts being a cause for their blocks. I've worked with gymnasts who just want a quick fix or a solution to their blocks. Parents are guilty of this too. They want a clear cut plan for what they can do to make their gymnast's blocks go away and resume gymnastics life as normal again.
Unfortunately, these are the gymnasts who tend to struggle the longest. It's easy to tell gymnasts what to try to do to be able to do their skill again. But their mental block will continue to come back if they don't get to that underlying and often deep root cause (which again has nothing to do with gymnastics but the way they perceive themselves).
It's the same idea as treating a fever with Tylenol. While your fever will go down if you take medicine, it won't help you get to the real reason for the fever. Likewise, a mental block is a symptom of a deeper issue.
The good news through all of this is that working through mental blocks means a gymnast can work on changing her thought patterns and creating a more healthy life, even outside of the gym.
These thought patterns don't just happen in the gym. They happen in school, extracurricular activities, and any activity that your gymnast is involved in.
So as a parent you can really take note of some of the underlying struggles you hear from your gymnast. Is winning and being perfect important to her? Is being noticed and acknowledged something she strives for? Does she not feel worthy as a human being unless she achieves a certain goal or attains high scores?
While I'd love to also give you tips for how to work through these struggles with your gymnast, I do know as a parent myself that often the message isn't the same when it comes from a parent. Children often tune out or dismiss what their parents say, especially when a parent is trying to give her advice or help her talk through her struggles. That's why hiring a mental performance coach is important.
Hopefully, though, you can gain a little more insight into your gymnast's mental blocks. I know it's a frustrating topic that can cause angst to all parties involved, especially when you misunderstand what a mental block really is. Getting to the root cause of your gymnast's mental block is very important then.
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