Mental blocks in gymnastics can be one of the most maddening aspects of the sport to deal with. Whether they happen when you’re learning a new skill, or if they suddenly come up for a skill you’ve been performing for years, the frustration can be overwhelming – especially when you realize that it is YOU who holds the key to breaking through the block. Can you really overcome the block with ease? Will you ever get your beloved skill back again? Here are a few things that I discovered on the path to overcoming my own fears and mental blocks in gymnastics – and also upon realizing that success in whatever you’re doing, gymnastics or not, is all a matter of mastering the mind.
- Remind yourself that skills are never really “lost”.
You hear time and time again in the sport of gymnastics, “I lost my kip!”, “I lost my back handspring!” as if these skills were swept under a rug somewhere, unable to be found. But skills aren’t like material objects. They can’t REALLY be lost.
Skills are, essentially, a connection between the brain and the body, built through repetition. Proper technique, drills, spotting, strength, and flexibility all contribute to doing that skill for the first time, and it does take time to make those connections.
When it comes to a skill that you’ve done before over and over that seems to have “disappeared,” first acknowledge that your skill is not gone. That if you possessed the ability to do it before, you can absolutely do it again. Take a deep breath. Believe, know, and feel it is possible, no matter the block. Believing is absolutely the first step to achieving.
- Release your fears. Do gymnastics in the moment.
A mental block may happen because of an injury, or simply because you’re scared of what might happen. You begin to feel stuck, frozen, as if you can’t even attempt the skill. I remember feeling this way when connecting my back handspring series on beam. I would get up there and I literally would not budge. Often, not even for a first back handspring.
Eventually what I came to realize was that a series would never, ever happen if I didn’t move on the first one – and that it was actually the transition between the two that was tripping me up. There were a few times that some pretty scary things happened because I’d either throw myself in the skill to just to do it, or throw myself off the beam to avoid it. Let’s just say my first (and only) set of stitches happened because I jumped way off to the side of the beam in the middle of my series, my foot landing on the beam crank.
It was with this mental block, along with many, many others in my career that helped me realize that you cannot let the fear of what happened in the past, or your fear of what COULD happen hold you back.
The most helpful realization I had when overcoming my mental blocks is that gymnastics should always been done “in the moment.” You can do all sorts of things before you go – drills, visualization, etc – but it is very important to feel your body throughout the entire skill set. Know exactly where you are at every…single…moment.
I coined this idea as “Gymnastics in the Now” also known as mindfulness in gymnastics, and it’s for sure much easier said than done (especially when you’re flipping upside down, multiple times, and with twists?!) You can even practice it during all of your other skills that are on “auto pilot” for you and even for life in general for simple things like walking around the house. Mindfulness can be a great practice for everything because it helps keep you present, aware, and fully enjoying what’s going on right now.
- Improve your aerial awareness in all of your skills, mental block or not.
I think it’s best to improve your aerial awareness in every single skill you’re doing, so that if you get to a skill that gives you a block or more fear than usual, you go back to reminding yourself to slow it down in your mind. That when you know exactly where your body is at all times, you have complete control. I think we tend to feel afraid when we feel that lack of control. And with all due respect, gymnastics is not easy, considering most skills take place in the blink of an eye. Taking every single skill one step at a time will help you tremendously when you begin taking on more difficult skills.
- One step back, two steps forward.
Have faith in taking a step back to help you regain your confidence. I remember working with one girl at gymnastics camp who had a mental block on her flyaway. She’d “lost” her flyaway and I could sense her desperation. After explaining the above steps, we went back to simply doing tap swings. Once she focused on feeling the pull in her tap swing as it reached its highest peak, seeing her toes, and knowing in the moment where she was, she was able to let go. Of the bar, and her fear. And in less than a few days her flyaway had been found again, consistently.
- Listen to and really trust your coach.
Your coach always knows best. Listen with an open mind and heart. Even though you’re frustrated, your coach has most likely been through the same mental blocks themselves, either with another athlete or back when they were a gymnast. Teamwork is not just for teammates. Work with your coach through drills, spotting, adding and taking away mats, going back to basics -whatever it is they recommend.
Most of all, have confidence in yourself that you CAN do it. When you realize that you are truly the master of your own destiny, you begin to realize that fear and worry are just not worth it. Strength can be a huge factor in gymnastics, not just physically, but mentally as well. Be mindful of your thoughts. Be aware of what you’re telling yourself when you get stuck. Most importantly, allow the walls you’ve built in your mind to come crashing down. Mental blocks be gone!