Fear is a common feeling in gymnastics. It is both expected and appropriate at times. In fact, as gymnasts progress through the levels fear, helps to keep a gymnast safe. Without a healthy amount of fear, gymnasts may be attempting skills that they are not physically, mentally or emotionally ready to do safely. However, fear becomes frustrating when it prevents a gymnast from moving forward in the learning process. Fear can develop after a fall or witnessing another athlete fall. It can also develop when a gymnast is not ready for the skill.
Ways to Prevent Fear
The most frustrating form of fear (often referred to as a "mental block," not a label I like to give a gymnast), sometimes occurs for what seems to be no reason at all. This can be frustrating for everyone involved: athletes, parents and coaches. Let's dive into how we can prevent fear and then overcome if and when it occurs.
1. Be Physically Prepared
By far one of the best ways to prevent fear is to be physically prepared. This includes having the strength and flexibility required for the skill. It also includes being able to do each part of the skill prior to attempting the skill in its entirety. This often means that the gymnast and coach have to be patient during the process as there is not a magic trick for building the strength and flexibility. It requires hard work day after day, but it will pay off!
2. Understand the Skill
In order for a gymnast to feel ready to perform a skill they must know what they are doing. The gymnast should be able to describe each step of the skill. It is not enough to know how to do it physically there also has to be a cognitive piece. In gymnastics, this understanding is most frequently taught through progressions. The gymnast must first understand the shapes required in the skill, they then learn each piece of the skill through drills and last they put the skill together in order. When skills are taught with through progression with cognitive understanding it not only prevents fear it also makes it easier to fix a problem part when it develops.
3. Know You Are Emotionally Safe
Arguably, the most important step in fear prevention is that the gymnast must feel emotionally safe throughout the process. This means that the gymnast needs to have a support system; teammates, coaches, parents and themselves. They need to understand that they are not going to be punished for making a mistake. They need to feel empowered to start the learning process. As a coach this means being positive with your athlete. Your athletes needs to trust that you are not going to become angry or punish them. Without this emotionally safety the gymnast is stuck thinking about what will happen if they mess up and it prevents them from focusing on learning a new skill. They are unable to focus which is scary when attempting a new skill.
Ways to Overcome Fear
Unfortunately, the prevention isn't a solve all. Fear still occurs sometimes even if the three prevention steps are all in play. So, if the fear has set in here are a few tips to overcome it.
Backup without making the gymnast feel guilty or punished. Sometimes the gymnast simply needs a refresher in the learning process. If the skill was taught with progression originally this is very easy to do. Simply go back to the step the gymnast is comfortable at and begin the process again. This can sometimes be a quick fix other times it will take longer but it almost always works.
2. Take Small Steps
This process sometimes takes some creativity. The gymnast may need to take steps that seem microscopic at times. However, if they continue to take steps forward, regardless of how small they will get there. It may end of taking longer than you would like but it will happen.
You must meet the gymnast where their confidence level is at currently and build from there. Let's use beam as an example. If the gymnast is currently confident doing a skill on the low beam. Even if they can do it perfectly, it is unlikely that they are ready to go straight to the high beam. They must build confidence with the baby steps we are taking in step two. A gymnast can actually lose confidence and self-esteem if the skill or situation is too challenging or scary.
4. Use Mental Tools
Throughout the entire process mental tools can and should be provided to your gymnast. There are many mental tools that can be used. Introduce a few at a time and help your gymnast apply them. Ideas include:
- Positive Self Talk - Being kind to yourself. Try to view yourself as a teammate. What would you tell a friend who was experiencing the same fear or frustration.
- Cue Words - Develop cue words for each skill and or routine. These are brief coaching cues to help your mind focus on what needs to be done. Words such as tight, straight, square, etc. Sometimes, thinking about the cues your coach gives you can be a good starting point.
- Visualization - Having the gymnast visualize a skill is a great tool. However, like the skill itself this will require practice. There are times when a gymnast gets stuck visualizing the error. Help them through the process. If all they can see is the error try having them visualize the correction right after the error. With practice you can learn to visualize from different perspectives and incorporate all your senses.
- Breathing - There are many breathing techniques that can be taught to help an athlete regain control and become calm and ready to learn.
Throughout the process be patient and positive. Work hard to minimize the attention that you bring to the fear. Instead, focus your energy on building confidence. With progressions and time you will be able to break through the fear and the athlete will be stronger for overcoming it!
Hannah Thomas, Program Director