Nothing is more frustrating than when your gymnast has been going through a mental block for a long time (and you see no end in sight).
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Often mental blocks are much easier to change when intervention is done early on. When gymnasts come to me in the early stages of a mental block, it's often just a matter of tweaking a few things and we can prevent the mental block from lasting too long or becoming too big of a thing.
But when your gymnast has been struggling for months or years and finds herself going through the same block over and over (and the block even starts trickling into other events and skills), it can be more challenging to make a change.
That's not to say a change can't be made. It just means it will likely take longer and require more effort and lots of patience on everyone's part.
Here are a few tips for how to help your gymnast through a mental block that's been going on for a long time.
1. Help her build back up her confidence
When your gymnast is going through a mental block for any period of time, her confidence is extremely low. But if her mental block has been going on for a really long while then her confidence has likely hit rock bottom.
I've discussed the relationship between fear and confidence in the past but as a recap, when your gymnast has high fear her confidence is low, and vice versa. But when it comes to a mental block, your gymnast doesn't necessarily have fear. At least not of her skill. She might have things like fear of failure, fear of disappointing herself or her coaches, or fear of being held back a level.
Even still, there is a direct relationships between a mental block and levels of confidence. The longer her mental block has been going on, the lower her confidence dips.
So how do you help your gymnast build up her confidence?
While I typically suggest parents don't force techniques or goals on their gymnasts, in this case I'm making an exception. It's ok for you to approach your gymnast about this next tool which is called a Confidence Jar.
A Confidence Jar is a physical jar (or it can be drawn on paper) that your gymnast will use to track "wins." Any empty jar will do. It can even be an empty tissue box.
After finding the jar, you then need to find things you will add to the jar each time she has a "win." These could be marbles, beads, coins, pieces of paper, or anything that she can add one by one to the jar.
You can sit with your gymnast (or she can do this alone) and decide what constitutes a "win" for purposes of the Confidence Jar. A "win" should be any time she does something that involves moving in a positive direction in her mental block journey.
For example, any time your gymnast listens to her brain and does what it needs such as asking for a spot, taking a break, or doing a lower progression of her skill would constitute a "win" and warrants a new bead or marble being added to her jar.
Check out this Confidence Jar download.
The goal is to fill up the Confidence Jar and then when her Confidence Jar is completely filled, she can then reward herself with something that she thought of ahead of time. So her reward might be a movie night, making brownies, getting her nails done, or anything else that your gymnast enjoys.
This Confidence Jar can serve as a visual reminder for her to remember how hard she's been working to understand her brain and work WITH it instead of against it. Your gymnast will get excited to add more "wins" to her jar and with every "win" she will improve her confidence.
2. Help Your Gymnast Focus on What She CAN Do
Over time, it's easy for your gymnast to only focus on what she's lost or can't do in that moment. A mental block creates a feeling of loss of control. Your gymnast doesn't know if she's going to be able to do her skill today or not. She's anxious, confused, and feeling out of control.
When you help her learn to focus on what she CAN do, it trains her brain to look for the good. One way to do this is to have your gymnast write down everything she CAN do related to the skill she's blocked on. This is similar to making a Confidence Ladder.
For example, let's say she can't turn her vault anymore. Instead of focusing on the fact that she isn't doing her flip, she can think about what she CAN do instead.
In this case, your gymnast might be able to do timers on a mat or timers on the actual vault. She might be able to turn her vault into the pit or with a spot.
Those are the things she needs to focus her energy on because those are the things she can control in that moment. Spending her energy focused on not being able to do her skill will only waste her energy and cause her to feel more defeated.
The real issue comes in when your gymnast keeps getting stuck on the fact that she isn't doing her full skill. That can make her even more stuck because she only sees what she still can't do. And that starts a negative loop of feeling sorry for herself that she isn't doing her skill and lacking confidence because of that, which then perpetuates the block.
While doing drills or timers or lower progressions isn't doing her actual skill, it's still a step in the right direction. In a moment of not being able to do a skill, doing something (and focusing on that) is better than doing nothing at all. In fact, that's exactly what her brain needs in that moment - to feel safe and heard and to be doing something that it feels confident doing.
Regardless, as her parent, you can acknowledge that it stinks not being able to do her skill. Always acknowledge the disappointment and frustration your gymnast is feeling. But then remind her of everything she can still do related to her skill.
If getting involved like this causes your gymnast to shut down or roll her eyes at you, then don't push it. Instead, download the following worksheets and have your gymnast work through them.
3. Make Sure She Is In The Right Environment For Success
I get a lot of pushback from parents and gymnasts when I suggest they switch gyms to find a more supportive coaching environment. I understand how difficult this can be and that it's not always what the gymnast wants. But I always suggest it because if a gymnast is in an environment with coaches who don't know how to coach through a mental block effectively, her block will continue on for a very long time.
Please don't be fooled into thinking that a "good" gym is one that has produced Olympians. Yes, the coaches in these gyms have experience getting gymnasts to a high level and that's important. But it's not the MOST important thing.
A positive coaching environment with coaches who are willing to work with their gymnasts is a much better indicator of future success for your gymnast than just being in a gym that has produced "champions."
Now that's not to say that your gymnast can't be in a gym like this and thrive. She can! But if she's going through a mental block and not getting the support she needs, it is going to be a longer uphill battle than necessary for your gymnast. And there's nothing I hate more than hearing about a gymnast who is climbing a never-ending uphill battle because of poor coaches.
Regardless of whether your gymnast stays in a non-supportive gym or not, the goal is for her to have a support system of some sort in the gym. Maybe she has a favorite coach who is the nicest and is more willing to try new things to help your gymnast get through her block? If so, schedule privates with this coach.
Or maybe she has teammates who are going through a similar struggle. Have her spend more time with this teammate, even outside of the gym, so she feels like she has a good support system to lean on when things get tough.
Always remind your gymnast that you are there for her as a non-judgmental listening ear and for endless hugs. And then advocate for your gymnast inside of the gym. Schedule meetings with her coach, send emails, have conversations. Do everything you can to make sure everyone in the gym is on the same page when it comes to your gymnast and her mental block.
Unfortunately you might find that this isn't the case. Often if your gymnast has had a mental block for a long time, her coaches are less than enthusiastic to try new things or to work with your gymnast. Some coaches tend to spend their time where they see a reward in return. So they put their effort into the gymnasts who seem like they want it the most or are not being "lazy" or "unmotivated" as many like to think is the case with your gymnast who is blocked.
Again, this is the reason I always ask families to consider a gym change if they aren't getting the support they need in their current gym. A mental block is something that will continue on if your gymnast isn't getting the positive coaching and attention she needs in the gym.
Being stuck in a mental block is very frustrating for your gymnast, you, and her coaches. But being unable to do a skill for a long time can really cause your gymnast's confidence to plummet and as a result, she stays blocked even longer. Your gymnast needs to feel small "wins" even if it's just putting marbles into a Confidence Jar at home. Remind your gymnast that there are plenty of things she can do related to her skill, even if she can't do the skill itself. And then make sure she is supported in the gym with the best coaches and a positive coaching environment. Confidence, focusing on what she CAN do, and having support are all keys to getting through a mental block that's been going on for a long time.
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