Have you ever thought negative things about yourself or your abilities in gymnastics?
Sure you have!
We all do.
In fact, your brain is hard-wired to be negative so that it can protect you. If it knows of all the danger out there (negative thoughts) then it can cause your body to respond in time, potentially avoiding a threat.
It's a genius system when you think about it!
Unfortunately, in our present day world (and especially in gymnastics) it doesn't always help us.
Being mindful of your thoughts is really important, then, so you can find the thoughts that help you become a better gymnast and stop the ones that prevent you from becoming one.
Why your thoughts matter in gymnastics?
The thoughts you have in your mind become the words you say to yourself. Your self-talk is a reflection of your beliefs, then. And those words become your actions.
Thoughts --> Words --> Actions
Therefore our thoughts can ultimately motivate us to do something, they can calm us down, or they can cause fear (among many other things).
While thoughts are important, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish your thoughts from your words since your words are a reflection of your thoughts. When I mention the term self-talk, I'm also talking about your thoughts, since in this case they can be used interchangeably.
Self-Talk In Gymnastics
Self-talk is this internal dialogue that you, as a gymnast, have with yourself. It's the way you talk to herself, either out loud or inside your head. In essence, it's the thoughts you have as you are in the gym, at meets, when thinking about gymnastics, or just going about your everyday life.
It's long been shown that self-talk can influence both feelings and behaviors. In fact, negative self-talk has been associated with poor performance while positive self-talk has been associated with better performance.
You might imagine then how important mastering self-talk is to boosting a your confidence in gymnastics, improving your performance, and shaping the way you see yourself as a competitive gymnast.
When you use positive words in gymnastics, this can help you overcome challenges, become more confident, and feel good about yourself. When your words are positive, your actions are empowered and confident.
On the other hand, if you use negative words in gymnastics, this can make you feel incompetent, have lower self-worth, and be more likely to give up when challenges arise. Thus when your words are negative, your actions come from a place of feeling unsure and unworthy.
Unfortunately many gymnasts get stuck in a pattern of negative self-talk. While this might not seem like such a big deal, when you consider that the average person has upwards of 60,000 thoughts a day, this is huge deal! It is very important for you as a gymnast to be able to mind your thoughts and words.
Not to mention that 80% of those thoughts are negative, according to researchers!
Below is a list of different things you might have heard yourself think or say.
Take note of how many of these you might have thought, as well as other things you often say to yourself.
- What were you thinking?!
- Come on, you can do this!
- Of course you fell. You always fall.
- Just breathe.
- I'm never going to medal now.
- One event at a time.
- My coach hates me.
- This is where I always fall apart.
- I’m tired. I can’t do this. I have to stop.
- Give up.
- You already made a mistake. Why bother trying now.
In addition, there are many different types of self-talk. Self-talk isn't just positive or negative. Some of those types of self-talk are:
- Positive - words that encourage us
- Negative - words that make us feel defeated or not so skilled
- Neutral - words that are neither positive nor negative; matter of fact
- Instructional - words such as “Pull up” that tell our body what to do
- Motivational - words that inspire us such as “You’ve got this!”
- Focus words - words that tell us what to focus on such as "Push, Lift, Tight, Twist, Straight"
- Calming/Energizing - words that change our energy level such as “Breathe, Slow Down, Take Your Time” or “Let’s go, Attack, I’m Powerful”
Becoming Aware Of Your Thoughts And Words
In order to get a handle on what you are saying, you first have to notice your thoughts and words. Most of the time gymnasts don't really pay attention to what they say and therefore are unable to change their words. Also, younger gymnasts may not have the insight yet to hear their words.
In fact, it's a phenomenon that you can actually hide your own self-talk thoughts from yourself. When you get so used to hearing yourself talk, you can block out those negatives and not really hear them anymore. This doesn't mean they don't still affect you though! Remember those thoughts become words which become actions.
So the first step is to practice doing a thought dump. This means listening to your thoughts and writing them all down on paper.
Ask yourself what kinds of things you say:
- During practice?
- Before you compete?
- During competition?
- After you finish competing?
Do you notice any patterns?
Are you more negative at certain times?
It's important to notice and understand when these times are. This way you can be more aware of catching them when they come up.
P.S. I created this Self-Talk worksheet freebie last year. Be sure to snag it if you haven't already.
Practice Stopping A Negative Thought
Once you become aware of your negative thoughts, it's then time to practice stopping those negative thoughts.
One way to do this is to picture an image in your mind that signifies STOP. This might be a stop sign. It might be a brick wall. It might be a dead end. You want to find something that will signal to you to stop your thoughts.
You might even do a physical gesture such as clapping your hands or pumping your fist. The goal is to get you to notice your negative self-thought and to stop it or switch it around before it gets too big.
Finding A Better Feeling Thought
After you've noticed your negative thought, then stopped yourself from thinking or saying it anymore in that moment, it's then time to find a better feeling thought.
This is where many gymnasts go wrong. They often try to change their negative thought into a positive thought immediately.
The problem with this is that most of the time they don't believe that new positive thought.
Think of a train going 100 miles per hour in one direction.
When you want to turn that train around, you can't just immediately have it go 100 miles per hour in the other direction.
The law of physics makes that impossible. The train must first come to a complete stop and then start moving in the opposite direction. It will be seconds or even minutes before it is up to 100 miles per hour in the other direction. And this is after it came to a complete stop in order to turn around.
The same is true of your thoughts.
You have to stop your thought and then start heading in the positive direction. You won't hit your 100 mph mark (new positive thought) immediately. It's a gradual process.
So what this means is that you look for neutral thoughts as you're transitioning your self-talk from negative to positive.
For example, if you catch yourself saying: "I'll never get my series on beam" you wouldn't want to say "I can do this. I'm awesome. I'm a good gymnast" after you catch that negative thought because you won't believe it yet.
Instead you might start with some neutral thoughts such as "I can keep trying. I've learned hard things before."
These thoughts are not false (you never want to trick or lie to yourself) and they are moving you in the direction of a better feeling thought. But they aren't necessarily positive thoughts. They're neutral.
It's much easier to go from "I've learned hard things before" to "I can do my series" than it is to go from "I can't do my series" to "I can do my series."
Eventually you'll work your way up to the new positive thought but it's best to take it slow and just move in the direction of the positive thought for now.
Remember, it's not wrong to think positive thoughts. In fact, that's what you're aiming for!
The problem comes when you don't believe those positive thoughts. The goal is for your brain to believe what you're thinking. Because you've likely practiced negative thoughts for a very long time, it's much easier for your brain to believe negative thoughts and discount the positive ones.
Therefore you have to work your way up to saying and believing positive thoughts.
The first step, though, is always having an awareness of what you're currently thinking. You can then work to stop your negative thought and replace it with something neutral or that brings you into the positive direction (remember the train).
If you do this enough times consistently, it will be easier for your mind to head in the positive direction more often.
While this might seem like tedious work, being mindful of your words is SO important in gymnastics. Like I said earlier, when you think negative thoughts or speak negative words, it can lower your confidence. When you have less confidence, you will not compete as well and you will doubt your skills.
In sum, your thoughts matter! Your thoughts create your words (self-talk) which then creates the actions you do. So be mindful of your thoughts, work to stop negative ones, and focus on thinking better feeling thoughts.
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