Parents often wonder why their once fearless gymnast all of a sudden becomes fearful of skills in gymnastics.
In fact, lately this is something I've been hearing come up more and more from baffled parents.
While I know how confusing and frustrating it can be to have a gymnast who suddenly becomes afraid of doing skills she once could do, once you understand what is going on I know you'll feel a little better about this situation.
Ok, so here's a common scenario:
You might have a gymnast who is learning skills fast. She seems totally fearless.
In fact, she's consistently handling harder and harder skills with ease. She seems unstoppable and on fire!
You enjoy seeing her progress and smile so much.
Things are good.
Until one day...she's afraid.
She seems less confident.
She doubts herself.
And she might even stop doing some of the skills she would normally do without a problem....all of a sudden!
Here's what's going on when your fearless gymnast all of a sudden becomes afraid of skills.
To put it in perspective, when your gymnast is younger her brain is hard-wired differently than when she's older. Up until about the age of 6, her brain is forming massive amounts of connections as new learning takes place. Those connections provide the framework for her skills and abilities.
Around the age of 10-13 (adolescence) a switch starts to take place in your gymnast's brain.
In fact, adolescence is a significant time of development in your gymnast's brain. One of the big things that happens during this time period is that the unused connections in the grey matter of her brain are pruned away. Likewise, the connections that are used the most are further strengthened and solidified. It's a "use it or lose it" sort of thing.
Her brain does this remodeling to help make her future adult brain more efficient. It's like clearing out the clutter. She now has easy access to the things (or pathways) she uses the most without getting overwhelmed by the things that are just in her way and serve little purpose.
When the unused connections start to get pruned away, this process starts in the back of the brain in a part called the amygdala. That means that this region of her brain finishes developing before other regions of her brain. In other words, her amygdala gets rid of the clutter and can work very efficiently.
Guess what the amygdala is responsible for? That fight-flight-or-freeze response. The amygdala is the part of her brain that responds to danger. It's job is to scan for danger and respond to it quickly.
In contrast, the front part of the brain responsible for planning and decision making (prefrontal cortex) gets pruned last and thus isn't fully developed until early adulthood. That clutter still exists in this part of her brain for quite some time making it less efficient.
Because of this difference in pruning schedule, your gymnast is essentially working with a brain that hasn't fully developed. And the part that is more developed is the one the elicits the fear response.
Since the amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze response, adolescents tend to respond to situations with emotion, impulses, or aggressive behavior. They don't have as much access to the frontal part of the brain that is responsible for impulse control, solving problems, and good decision making.
So fear is something that becomes a normal reaction more and more during this period of time in your gymnast's life.
Hence this can explain why your fearless gymnast all of a sudden starts to act fearful, even when doing skills she never felt fear on before.
Now, not only is your gymnast's brain undergoing a massive change in rewiring, she is also going through a social-emotional "awakening" period during this time.
She now begins to notice outside elements such as other people watching (and judging) her. And she might be more sensitive to being embarrassed in front of others. She might even feel she needs to prove her worth to those around her.
All of this is par for the course in adolescence. Unfortunately, in the gym your gymnast is under even more scrutiny than in everyday situations. She has coaches and judges evaluating her every move. And she can feel this in a deeper and more raw way during this period of development.
What makes your gymnast's fear worse during this time?
Now while this is a normal part of development, there are a few things that can make your gymnast's fear worse.
1. If your gymnast advanced very quickly through the levels, she is more likely to experience this sudden fear.
When gymnasts are talented or learn skills quickly, their bodies learn difficult skills at such a quick speed that often their brains aren't in sync with what their bodies are doing. When their brains finally catch up, you might see this fear response kick in.
In cases like these, it's often a good idea for gymnasts to go back and repeat a level or two in order to solidify the basics and get their brains up to speed with their skills. If they keep pushing forward, this could result in more lost skills and a big dip in confidence over time.
2. When your gymnast's coach does not spot her or makes her "push through" her skills.
While it's true your gymnast can do the skills she now has fear on, it's never a good idea to push her brain to do these skills just yet. When your gymnast is going through this fear response it's important that her brain feels safe. That means allowing her to do lower progressions of her skill or getting spotted when needed.
Unfortunately many gyms don't believe in spotting, especially when a gymnast has already been doing a skill. This leads to a drop in confidence which makes her newfound fear last longer than it has to.
3. Bribing or trying to motivate your gymnast to do her skill again.
Remember how your gymnast's brain is undergoing a change in wiring during this period? That's one of the main reasons for this sudden fear. It is NOT a lack of motivation.
While you might be able to bribe her into doing her skill for a big competition, she'll most likely end up losing her skill once again shortly afterwards. It's her brain operating from this primitive mode that is the cause. And unfortunately she has little control over those outbursts of fear she is experiencing if she's not aware of what is going on.
Bribing will not make her fear go away. Instead she needs to learn what's going on in her brain and build strategies to help her through this period of time.
4. Comparing her to her teammates or her "former" self.
Again, your gymnast isn't deliberately trying not to do her skill. And she doesn't need another reason to make her feel less confident. When you compare her to her teammates or even to her own self months or years ago, you are increasing the chances that she will have a dip in confidence.
Even saying things like "You did this before. You shouldn't be afraid. You can do it" is invalidating the fear she feels. While it's true she's done the skill before, it's not true that she doesn't feel any fear. She does! And that fear is legitimate to her brain.
Acknowledging her fear and advocating for her to do what feels safe in that moment is the best way to help your gymnast.
5. Making her sit out an event because she can't do the skill in question.
Many coaches will make gymnasts sit out the event that they can't do their skill on. It's usually a motivation tactic that is meant to inspire the gymnast to get over her fear and do her skill.
However, like I mentioned earlier, your gymnast isn't fearful to do her skill because of a lack of motivation and desire. The changes in her brain combined with normal adolescent social-emotional changes are making it challenging for her to feel safe.
So requiring a gymnast to sit out an event because she is too afraid to do the skill in question is punishing her for something she cannot control. It's a better idea to have her do a different skill or a piece of the skill she can do and take the hit in deduction than sit out on the sidelines.
What can your gymnast do to feel less fearful in gymnastics?
While these feelings of fear may have come on suddenly, they most likely won't go away quickly. Your gymnast needs to work on creating new thought patterns and physical habits that assure her brain she's safe.
1. Take deep breaths.
When your gymnast's primitive brain is taking over, it will immediately find a quick response to the danger it is perceiving. That's where the fight-flight-or-freeze response comes in.
Your gymnast has to learn how to shut down that response as soon as possible. The first way to do that is to recognize when she's going through that danger response based on how her body is feeling. She might get sweaty palms, a fast heartbeat, or have trouble breathing. Those are signs her primitive brain is in charge.
When that is the case, if she takes slow deep breaths it will remind her brain that she is safe and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system ("rest and digest") to kick in. Breathing a great tool that is often under-utilized.
2. Remind herself that everything is ok.
When your gymnast starts to panic or feel fear, it's important that she reminds her brain that everything is ok. She can do this by repeating a comforting mantra such as "Everything is ok. You've got this" or something similar.
When she talks to herself in the third person voice as if talking to herself, it can help trick her brain into believing the words are even more true.
This reminder will help her brain feel safer. And it gives your gymnast a tangible thing to do when she's feeling fear. While this likely won't make her fear go away in that moment, over time it will comfort her brain and make it more likely that her brain will allow her to do her skill again.
3. Do what makes her feel safe in that moment.
If your gymnast is scared but would do her skill with a spot, then she should ask for a spot (and hopefully get one from her coach).
Or she should try to do something related to the skill that feels safer such as using mats or doing a related drill.
It's important that your gymnast find ways to make her brain feel safe and secure in that moment so her fight-flight-or-freeze response isn't triggered.
Coaches often worry that if she starts to do easier progressions or asks for a spot that she will lose the skill. The truth is, she hasn't "lost" her skill at all. Her body is still easily able to do it. It's her brain that is stopping her from doing the skill. If she can make her brain feel safer, it will take its foot off the brake and allow her to go for it.
When your gymnast understands what's going on in her brain, she can then know how to respond to those feelings of fear when they come up.
Another important piece is to keep helping your gymnast build up her confidence. Because this is a particularly vulnerable time for her, she needs to keep working on strengthening her confidence as she navigate through this fear.
Bottom line, fear is a normal response in adolescence. While it may be frustrating to your gymnast and everyone involved, it takes an awareness and understanding of what's going on to get through it.
Give it time. Help your gymnast work with her brain. And be patient.
When in doubt or if your gymnast is really stuck, reach out to me for some private mental coaching sessions. I have a 3-session Mental Block Jumpstart package that can help your gymnast work through her fear.
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