Mental blocks in gymnastics are frustrating experiences that can cause emotional pain and suffering in gymnasts, parents, and coaches alike.
Every day I get asked the question, why do gymnasts get mental blocks?
While there's no clear cut answer as to why gymnasts get mental blocks, there are multiple factors that might contribute to a gymnast getting one.
Below I've outlined a few reasons why gymnasts get mental blocks. While this list is not comprehensive, it's a great place to start when searching for answers about your own gymnast.
First, however, let's take a journey through the human brain!
One major function of the human brain is to keep its surrounding body safe. Many thousands of years ago, survival was important which might have meant fleeing from environmental danger such as saber tooth tigers.
Therefore our brains were hard-wired to identify danger quickly and then respond to it automatically. This is where the fight-flight-or-freeze response came into play.
Thousands of years later, our brains still do the same thing. They still scan the environment for danger and respond as quickly as possible to it. The difference now is that our sources of danger are different. Instead of saber tooth tigers, we feel stress. Instead of scaveging for our food, we have pressure to meet high expectations. So while the sources of danger are different, the response remains the same. Do whatever it takes to preserve the human body in the face of danger.
Reasons Why Gymnasts Get Mental Blocks
1. Your Gymnast Had A Scary Fall When Doing The Skill
One of the most obvious reasons for why your gymnast might develop a mental block is because of a scary fall on her skill.
Her brain now associates doing this skill with "danger" and stops her from dong the skill when she tries it. She might get really nervous, tense up, get sweaty palms, or get heart palpitations when going for the skill again. This can lead to her no longer trying the skill or avoiding it at all costs.
2. Your Gymnast Balked On A Skill
While this relates to having a scary fall, it's slightly different in that balking doesn't always involve a fall. Balking is when your gymnast stops going for a skill mid-way through or right before attempting the "flight" part of the skill. She may do her round off back handspring and then jump up but not do her back tuck. She might run down the vault runway but then veer off to the side or start her vault and bail out of it.
While the reason for a balk most likely started well before she actually balked (i.e. things were starting to feel funky and she ignored the signs), balking can create a fear of doing the skill again for fear of balking again and potentially getting injured.
3. Your Gymnast Progressed Too Quickly Through A Skill
When your gymnast learns skills fast or goes up through the levels at a fast pace, she can often develop mental blocks. While her body might be on board with her increase in skills, her brain often lags behind. This means her brain's ability to adapt to her progress doesn't always stay on par with her actual progress.
Unfortunately this means that when her brain realizes what the body is doing, it might freeze up to protect her body. Often, there's a lack of confidence since she hasn't been doing each skill long enough to feel solid on it. And her brain feels this lack of assuredness.
Sometimes a gymnast who progresses fast through skills might know that once she learns a new skill she'll be expected to learn another new one. Mental blocks are a way for her brain to slow things down.
4. Your Gymnast Has Unrealistically High Expectations For Herself
I often see this in gymnasts with perfectionist tendencies. Your gymnast might set the bar high for herself and then the pressure of having to perform that skill perfectly can actually cause her brain to shut down.
If your gymnast has unrealistically high expectations and views failure as bad, she can get stuck in that middle phase of doing a new skill that's not quite perfect yet. She'll want to avoid those imperfect repetitions and/or fear being seen as not good enough. This pressure can cause her brain to go into safety mode and shut down her skill.
5. Your Gymnast Is Feeling A Time Pressure
If your gymnast loses her skill right before competition season begins, chances are she's feeling the pressure of time. Or rather, lack of time. Often well-intentioned coaches will start countdowns in the gym leading up to the first competition of the season. Unfortunately this can back fire.
Gymnasts who still need to learn skills necessary to competing at a certain level can feel pressure to get their skill in time. But if the skill isn't coming or they can't seem to do the skill consistently, their brain starts to shut down making it nearly impossible to get the skill in time.
As an analogy, I like to think of getting my kids on the school bus in the morning. When I know there's only a few minutes before the bus arrives and my kids aren't ready yet, I'll start warning them that the bus will be there and that they have to hurry up. What happens every time? They freeze. They move slower because their brains are telling them that the pressure they're feeling is not safe. While it's not a perfect analogy, it's that same feeling for gymnasts. When countdowns are on, their brains are in danger mode and cause skills to freeze up.
Other reasons your gymnast might be getting mental bocks that relate specifically to being in the gym include:
- Wanting to make it to college or elite gymnastics and her feeling she's not on target to meet that goal (i.e. her thinking she should already be a level 9 in order to be on track to make it to level 10/elite by a certain age)
- Comparing herself to other teammates (i.e. "Why can she do that already and I can't?")
- A negative coach who makes threats or punishes her
- Bullying by her teammates or being made fun of
- Fear of a skill after watching her teammate fall on it
Those are all reasons that gymnasts get mental blocks that involve the gym itself. But something many people do not realize is that often mental blocks are caused by stress and pressure unrelated to gymnastics.
This is when figuring out the source of a mental block becomes tricky because a certain situation doesn't seem to have a direct correlation with gymnastics.
For example, the following situations can all cause pressure and stress on your gymnast's brain and thus lead her to getting mental blocks:
- Transition to a new school or new grade (i.e. going to middle school)
- Stress from exams or increased work load at school
- Wanting to participate in social events with friends at school but can't because of practice/meets
- Disruptions at home (i.e. divorce, remodeling of house, etc)
- Death of loved ones
- Moving to a new town/state/country
- Pandemics that disrupt her entire life
When figuring out the cause of a mental block, it's often vital to ask the question: What source of stress or pressure is my gymnast going through in or out of the gym?
By taking a hard look at what is happening in your gymnast's life, you can begin to find the areas that are causing the most stress.
Your goal then is to help your gymnast find ways to lessen these stressors. By lightening up these stressors, your gymnast's brain will not sense danger and will be free to put its resources into helping her do her skill.
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 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