Losing backwards skills in gymnastics is something common that happens to many gymnasts.
While it can be really frustrating and confusing to go through, there is hope!
Going through any mental block can feel scary at first.
But once you understand your brain and why this is happening to you, you can then begin to work through this backwards mental block.
First of all, gymnasts ask me all the time "Why can't I do my backwards skills in gymnastics?"
While I wish I had one cut and dry answer for all of you, the truth is that gymnasts lose their backwards skills for a number of different reasons. Like all mental blocks in gymnastics, however, often one of the biggest reasons for this happening is because your brain is perceiving danger and responding to it by freezing up your body.
Tumbling backwards can be scary. But that's not what your brain is afraid of. In fact, your body could probably do your backwards skill in its sleep, especially if this is a skill you've been doing for months or years.
Instead, your brain is most likely shutting down because it's not feeling safe from a psychological perspective.
Let's quickly dive into how your brain works.
Your brain is hard-wired to detect and respond to danger. One of the purposes of your amygdala, the most primitive part of your brain, is to detect stress and and send out the signal to engage the fight-flight-or-freeze response if it senses danger. It is constantly scanning your environment and alerting the body to respond.
In modern times, the danger you're bombarded with isn't so much wild animals and fleeing from enemies, as it was for our primitive ancestors. Instead, it's stress, pressure, feeling overwhelmed, managing too many things, handling expectations, and a number of other things that weigh your brain down on an emotional level.
Unfortunately gymnastics is saturated with all of these emotional stressors. In fact, as a culture, gymnastics is a tough sport that requires perfection and absolute dedication. Add in coach expectations and upcoming meets and it's the perfect recipe for losing skills, especially your backwards ones.
So why do I lose my backwards skills and not my front ones?
This is a good question. Most likely it's because your brain perceives less danger with forward skills. Forward skills in general are often less scary to learn because you aren't flinging your body into the unknown. You can see what's in front of you. And because you can see the apparatus when going forward, it doesn't heighten your brain's alert response as readily as backwards skills do where you lose sight of the floor or beam.
What can I do if I've lost my backwards skills?
1. Don't Panic
First of all, don't panic. It's common to lose backwards skills, especially right as meet season is approaching or getting into full swing. Actually this is the time when I see the greatest number of mental blocks in gymnasts. So while it doesn't feel good to lose your backwards skills, just know that you're not alone!
2. Listen To Your Brain
Second, it's important that you listen to your brain when you lose your backwards skills. If you get that feeling in your stomach that tells you that you aren't going to go for a skill, do NOT stand there and continue to try your skill.
Instead, walk away and find something to do that involves the skill but that you can do in that moment. For example, if you're trying to do a back handspring on beam and you can't make yourself go, instead of standing there trying to do it and not going for it, go onto the line on the floor and do it there. When that feels more comfortable then move up to low beam with mats. You want to go slow and progress gradually so you can ensure that your brain is feeling safe and protected.
The worst thing you can do when you can't do your backwards skills is continue to try to do them. This sounds counterintuitive but when it comes to the brain it's important that you aren't reinforcing negative patterns. The more you try to do your backwards skills and balk, the more you're reinforcing a pattern that you don't want to reinforce.
3. Have Patience
Third, have patience! It can be especially frustrating when you lose skills right when you need to perform them the most. But you can't rush getting your backwards skills back. You have to work with your brain and slowly reinforce new positive patterns. This takes time!
Unfortunately if meet season is underway then time can feel elusive. Regardless, you have to allow yourself the time and patience to get your skill back. Otherwise you could get your skill back temporarily and then lose it shortly afterwards. Or you could even start to lose other skills.
Remember that you are on this journey and that every twist and turn brings with it something new that you can learn. Enjoy the ride, find blessings in it all, and hang in there!
4. Make Sure Your Basic Needs Are Being Met
Are you fueling your body with the right foods? Under-fueling can contribute to brain fog and inability to deal with emotions.
Are you hydrated enough? Even being slightly dehydrated can decrease your performance. This can lead to low levels of confidence which can then cause your brain not to trust itself as much.
Are you sleeping enough? Being fatigued can cause your brain to shut down your body when it's trying to do skills in the gym.
Are you building rest into your week? I'm not just talking about sleep. I'm talking about deliberate downtime. When you go to the gym 6 days a week, it's easy to have very little time to do fun things or veg out. But your brain needs this downtime to better process things after the fact.
5. Work With A Mental Performance Coach
This time of year my calendar books up because this is when most gymnasts are under immense stress to get and keep skills for meet season. But I love this time of year because it gives me a chance to work with many different gymnasts and help them perform up to their potential again.
While working with me or any mental performance coach won't make your mental block go away overnight, it will help you target your focus on the exact things that you need to do to get through it as quickly as possible. It also gives you the support you might not get in the gym from your coaches or from parents who are struggling to help you.
Losing your backwards skills in gymnastics is frustrating and scary at times. You know that you can physically do your skill, but for some reason your body won't do it. This can lead to a pattern of trying to do your skill, getting frustrated, and then being stuck in this cycle of not making progress. In fact, you might even start to lose other skills along the way.
While there's no quick answer to get through your mental block on your backwards skills, it's important that you don't panic about it, have patience, work with your brain, make sure your basic needs are being met, and work with a gymnastics mental performance coach if things don't get better.
If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.
- Resources: Get gymnastics downloads to help your gymnast work on her mental skills in gymnastics
- Mental Health Challenge 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