There's this common myth out there that gymnasts should push through their skills when they can't do them.
While this is a method that was likely passed down from generation to generation of old-school coaching practices, it is NOT effective.
When you've lost a skill or are blocked on it, the answer is NEVER to push through.
I'm going to explain why...
Your Brain Is Designed To Respond To Threats To Its Safety
Your brain is hard-wired to detect danger and respond to it quickly. This dates back to the cave person era where it was important to be able to evade danger for survival purposes.
In present day times your dangers are no longer the same, however your brain's response is essentially the same. The difference now is that instead of mountain lions and other tribes posing a threat to your survival, in modern times your brain perceives things like pressure, expectations, and stress as potential danger.
When you are going through a block, your brain has decided that things around you are too unsafe and it shuts down your body from doing your skills.
Just to clarify, it's not that your brain thinks your back handspring on high beam is unsafe. That's a skill you could probably do in your sleep at this point. In fact, the physical part is not the problem at all.
Instead, your brain is noticing threats in its environment that feel stressful. The consequence is to shut down your body's movements in that freeze response.
For example, a 12 or 13 year old gymnast might be feeling extra stress from an increased workload at school or a transition to a new school. Her brain senses this stress and signals the body's stress response which may strike when she's in the gym working on her series.
Perhaps right before gym she was stressing about her math test tomorrow. Or she was thinking about what her friend said to her right after school. All that stress builds up until her brain decides the load is too much.
This stress response then signals a series of events that causes the gymnast's body to react in a fight-flight-or-freeze mode almost automatically.
The whole situation can feel confusing because a gymnast knows she is capable of doing her skill. In fact she's probably done it hundreds of times; maybe even competed it successfully in the past.
That's why gymnasts and coaches are often frustrated and at a loss for what to do.
Pushing Through Only Makes Things Worse
Because a gymnast has done the skill she's blocked on in the past, it's logical for coaches to assume that the gymnast needs to "push through" her skill so that things will just click again.
But this is one of the worst things a coach can make you do in that moment!
Your brain is signaling for the stress response because of the perceived threats it is feeling and deliberately causing your skill to shut down. Again, these threats are not physical. Most of the time they are mental in nature.
An exception might be if a gymnast had a fall on a skill that she's trying to do. In that case it might be a fear related to the physical skill.
For the most part, though, when you push through a skill physically your brain will push back harder.
This often leaves a very frustrated gymnast who feels she's not working hard enough or needs to just keep trying.
Unfortunately, every time you push through a skill that you are blocked on, your brain loses trust. This dip in trust and confidence perpetuates the blocked skill.
What SHOULD You Do Instead?
Instead, you and your gymnastics coach should work to build back trust with your brain. This entails doing variations of your blocked skill that your brain feels safer on.
For example, if you're on low beam with panel mats trying to do your series and you keep blocking, you should take it to the bench or the line on the floor and do it there. Once you feel confident on that platform, you can then (and only then) move it up to another variation that is slightly more challenging but still feels doable.
Getting through a mental block often requires one step backwards to go two steps forward. It's not a linear progression EVER!
Again, by helping your brain feel safe you allow it to take its foot off the brake and ease up gradually.
This process takes time which often means not being able to compete a skill you really need in time for this season. But trust me when I say that rushing this process will only cause your blocks to come back over and over and over again.
It's better to work more slowly through a block to develop a good solid foundation of trust and confidence than to rush through getting a skill, only to lose it again shortly afterwards.
While I know this is not necessarily the news you want to hear as a gymnast, it's important that you really listen to your brain and give it what it needs instead of trying to push through. Pushing through when your brain is sensing a threat only leads to it pushing back more. Instead, train progressions of your skill that build back up the trust and confidence your brain needs before trying to do the skill you are trying to do again. This takes time and patience but if you stick it out, you will see long lasting results.
If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.
- Free 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