Almost 70% of gymnasts at the highest level have experienced psychological blockage. The inability to perform a gymnast’s ability previously achieved with ease, also known as psychological blocking, is called a mental blocks in gymnastics.
These athletes are only a minority who experience blocking that causes them to lose their performance. However, it can be devastating for many athletes who experience blocking.
Sometimes, it is possible to identify the root cause of psychological blocking problems by identifying a clear starting point. This could be a serious fall or near-catastrophic event, or even a painful collision. Perhaps the cause was watching similar events happen to others. However, it is more difficult to determine the cause.
Our research has shown that blocking exhibits a variety of predictable characteristics (Feigley Robbins & Berger 1989).
- It can be used to generalize backwards in a series of skills. Blocking on the back somersault phase, roundoff, and back handspring quickly spreads to the back somersault sequence, and often to the roundoff.
- It can be applied to all skills. A problem with the back salto of the beam can quickly become a problem with the floor or beam and cause a back salto.
- Similar characteristics are found in athletes who are susceptible to blocking. These are:
- Very bright
- Fast learners, at the very least in the beginning.
They are intelligent and quick learners, which often leads to them learning quickly without having to learn intermediate steps. This trait has been identified as a possible cause of or related to a cause by a study on trampolinists (Day. Thatcher, Greenlees & Woods (2006).
Top 10 Reasons Gymnasts Have Mental Blocks
1. Social Factors
Social factors can play many roles in mental blockage.
Athletes who experience major changes (new coach or gym, new school, etc.) can be affected. It can impact mental toughness.
Confidence is built on consistency. An athlete can lose confidence if the support system is inconsistent.
It is important to learn how to deal with social changes quickly so that the mental block doesn’t become too severe.
My experience with gymnasts has shown me that they often get blocked when they are picked on by their coaches or teammates. This can be in the form well-meaning comments such as “oh, come on, just try it!” or more negative comments such as “you’ll never move up if that one skill isn’t learned.” Sarcasm and threats add to the stress.
Athletes 12+ are more socially motivated and it is important that they feel secure both emotionally and physically in order to learn new skills in the gym.
Mental blocks in gymnastics can also occur when an athlete starts to make strong friendships outside the gym.
If a gymnast must choose between practicing and being part of the gym’s fun, her skills may suffer. The reason this happens is that the gymnast may start to resent USA gymnastics because it gets in the way of her social life.
2. Ineffective Coaching
I have been guilty of being too hard on and too soft in my 15 years coaching competitive gymnastics.
Sometimes, I would become frustrated and shout, ignore, punish or give rope climbs to my kids – because I was willing to do whatever it took to get them un-stuck.
I tried to let the fearful gymnast go at her own pace and relieved some of the pressure.
None of these strategies was 100% successful.
Through my studies in sport psychology, and more specifically in the psychology of confidence-building, I discovered:
- Each athlete has their own motivators and they can change over time.
- Positive coaching can create a more positive emotional environment, which can help you achieve greater success.
- Coaching fear-based gymnasts is not an easy task.
- Fear can make even the best-intentioned coach worse. If this is happening to you, it might be worth seeking outside help.
You can get a copy of my Sports Confidence Roadmap for free at the end of this article. This is one of my favorite tools to help you move from being fearful to feel confident.
3. Fear Of Injury/Reinjury
Past successes are one of the best ways for athletes to build their confidence.
Children can build fear through past failures, such as falls and injuries.
Gymnastics is so dependent on the mind, that athletes who believe they will be hurt are more likely to get hurt.
It’s important to get back to your skills after an injury.
4. Fear Of Embarrassment
One example is a gymnast who lost her floor skills and began to lose her twisting.
The lack of control was a puzzle to her. She was unable to control her movements until she was upside-down in mid-air. She found this terrifying and decided not to try to flip.
We discussed all the changes that had occurred since her tumble started. She had recently changed gyms and found that there were some cute boys at her new place.
She felt extra pressure to be perfect and show off, which caused her to “accidentally twist one of her flips”, which set the entire thing in motion. She was embarrassed at how she had twisted her body to impress a boy.
We found out that her fear of embarrassment kept her from trying difficult skills.
After she understood it, I offered her a choice:
- Avoid embarrassment, but keep your mouth shut…
- You can also be willing to fail and look foolish in order to regain your skills.
She made the right choice. She would rather risk her ambition of competing in college by falling on her bum in front of a cute boy than to give up her dream.
Two steps were required to solve this problem: first, identify the cause of the skill loss and then make a decision. Then, tap into the passion that is stronger than fear (in her case, gymnastics for as long possible).
This is a huge one. Perfectionism has many hallmarks:
- Fear of losing people
- Fear of failure
- Fear of not looking great
Ironically, people who are so determined to be perfect often do things perfectly but are too conservative.
These athletes don’t want to lose and take risks to win.
This is the child who would rather do a handstand on bars than be in a coma. They are safe and won’t play games that they may lose.
This one is a good friend of mine. I know this one too well. My support team – my family, coaches and colleagues – is what keeps me going when I’m at the edge of a huge challenge. If I don’t, it is tempting to give up before I have a chance at failing.
To overcome a mental block, perfectionists need to surround themselves with people who believe in them. People who see your potential and won’t judge you if you make mistakes.
You will feel more open to accepting unconditional love and support from those around you.
6. Negative Imagery
This is what I said a bit about injury, but it’s something that most gymnasts don’t know they’re doing.
Many people, particularly “visual learners”, tend to visualize their skills in mental images prior to actually using them.
You can’t visualize yourself performing a skill because you aren’t in your body. Coaches are essential for improving your skills and techniques.
Problem is, it is easy to create a false image of your body.
Ever had a coach correct you by saying “Your legs were bent”, and you thought, “No, they weren’t.”
Although you may believe your legs are straight or even see a picture in your head, you must trust that an outsider will help you improve.
Similar thoughts can be used by your coach to say, “You’re ready for it on the high beam! Go for it!” but you may think, “I’m going missing my hands!” or “I’ll split it!” You might also imagine yourself falling, getting hurt, and so forth.
Imagery can be a powerful tool, for good or ill.
Your brain believes that something is happening when you can see it vividly in your mind. Your brain sends signals to your muscle memory telling them to reproduce the image.
Your past experiences can influence your future confidence and fear. If your brain continues to experience failures and falls, your confidence will drop and your fear will rise without you realizing it.
7. Too Fast Progress
One of my clients lost her “easy” beam skills randomly. As she began to train more difficult skills, this happened.
She was hardworking and a graceful, strong gymnast. As a result, she was able to quickly progress through the levels.
We recalled the moment that fear began when we worked together. She realized that her coaches were always ready to help her move forward with every new skill she acquired.
She was physically capable of performing the skills but she didn’t have enough mental strength to be able to support herself mentally.
Success was associated with the ability to immediately move up in the next skill. She began to put off learning the hard skills she needed in order to slow down her progress, even though it was obvious.
The coach would not allow children to move on to the next assignment until they had completed the previous one. This gymnast began to get stuck on skills such as turns and handstands. She was unable to do many repetitions on hard skills which kept her from needing to continue her training.
Her secret weapon was communication with her parents, coaches, and family to regain control.
She wanted to spend more time learning new skills and doing more reps before she felt forced to move onto the next level. We came up with a plan together for how to communicate with her coach when she felt nervous. Also, we agreed on a pace that would allow her to progress at a steady pace.
8. Fear Of Failure
This is a very funny joke. This is not funny, but it’s funny and strange. It’s absurd that anyone would be afraid of success. It happens more often than people think.
Take the following phrase as an example: “it’s lonely up there.”
Any gymnast who is the most skilled or hardworking on her team runs the risk of being outperformed by her peers and ending up training all alone. Her sisters could also be jealous. Success can also be a risk, due to the importance of social relations in adolescence.
Success comes with pressure. Although it might not be in your head, the pressure is there. The expectation is that, if you succeed, others will also see you as a success.
This is closely linked to perfectionism:
- You will only be successful if you keep improving, which can be very stressful.
- If you fail, you will have to fall even further.
This is an extremely common reaction. You can be small and blend in. Then no one will notice that you made a mistake. People don’t expect too much of you.
A second scenario that can cause fear is “competing commitments”.
I had the opportunity to work with a swimmer who was constantly trying to subvert himself, in order to get into college without a swim team. His main focus was on academics. The second was swimming.
We found out that he believed that if he did too well, he would be under pressure to go to college. He realized this and communicated it with his parents. After finishing high school, he was able to swim his best season before he decided to hang up the towel.
9. Reaffirming The Balk
The saying “Practice makes perfect” is not true. I prefer “Practice makes permanent.”
You do it repetitively and it gets automated.
It doesn’t matter if a gymnast falls in the middle or end of skill.
However, once you get into the routine of bailing out, it becomes automatic and it is extremely difficult to change it.
You may have learned a skill at your backyard trampoline, or in another gym. Then you go to the gym and your coach forces you to re-learn it.
To correct the “wrong way” you learned it, they make you do a lot of drills.
Automation makes it much more difficult to do things the same way as learning a skill from scratch.
There are two options when it comes to the problem of balking
1. Create a balk program: What you do when you balk in order to reset and increase your chances for following through the next time.
2. You can take a step back and commit to moving forward, even if it is a slower process.
You reinforce the tendency to bail out every time you balk.
You can create new habits by temporarily returning to simpler skills in order to build confidence or re-set your mind before you try it again.
10. Expect Nerves To Get You Down
Do you know what it feels like to ride a rollercoaster on your own? Heart pounding, tense, butterflies, etc…
Some people love it, while others dread it.
This is true for nerves that are triggered by difficult skills or competitions.
People find adrenaline useful and helpful. Some people feel they are going to die. They then turn to the worst-case scenario.
A study found that people perform better under pressure when they say “I’m excited!”.
You won’t be as upset if you see the heart-pounding, butterflies feeling as a positive thing.
How To Overcome Mental Block in Gymnastics:
1. Give the gymnast perspective.
Blocking is not a weakness or character flaw, but a problem that must be solved. Other people have faced this problem and have successfully overcome it. This problem is not unique to you. Importantly, you must assume that the athlete is motivated by solving the problem.
2. Use “windows of opportunity”.
The gymnast has very few chances to perform the blocked skill in a window of opportunity. The gymnast should warm up properly and have had time to practice the necessary lead-up skills.
A coach might respond, “Okay, now you have told me that you are ready. We have 15 seconds to do your back handspring after you get up on the high beam.
If you are unable to complete the task within the time limit, take a step back from the beam and then prepare again before mounting it. This will only be three attempts. We’ll give up if we don’t succeed by that time. Tomorrow will be our last chance to attempt it.
This is the primary goal of the program. It is meant to provide multiple chances for success and not prolong the time that the athlete is in double-bind situations.
Double-bind is a situation where the gymnast is either damned for doing it or damned for not. Her fear of performing the skill can reach intolerable levels if she tries to. She is embarrassed in front of her coach, and herself if she fails to perform the skill.
This brief performance gives the focus to “getting ready” and not on keeping the athlete in a stressful situation filled with punishment, shame, or frustration. “Getting ready” means both mentally preparing for the skill the gymnast fears and practicing the necessary foundation skills.
Coaches and gymnasts can focus on the positive aspects of the opportunity, rather than the frustration of poor performance over long periods. The coach must present tomorrow without guilt, sarcasm, or disappointment.
3. When moving forward, avoid guilt.
Gymnasts feel shame and frustration, even though they may not show it in their outer expressions. These strong emotions can cloud the issue.
When the gymnast is stuck in a blocking position for long periods of time, where strong emotions are constantly present, those emotions can become tied to the circumstances. For example, standing on the beam and performing a series back handsprings.
Classic conditioning teaches the gymnast how to connect anxiety and specific situations that can lead to blocking (e.g. standing on the high beam). These emotional reactions are conditioned to make the problem worse, not solve it.
4. Reduce the emotion that is associated with blocking.
Communicate with your gymnast straight and be honest. We need to get ready. The parent, coach, and gymnast share the frustration. There seems to be no obvious cause for the psychological block.
However, the gymnast is seldom, if ever, motivated enough to block. Encourage the gymnast to be calm and consistent throughout instruction.
5. You should set a realistic timeframe for the “cure”. It shouldn’t be weeks, but months.
The prognosis for recovery will be shorter if the problem is identified quickly than if it has been present for six months. This perspective is reflected in the expression “a mile in and a mile out.”
6. Design progressions with alternative successes/conclusions.
The training should be designed so that there is always an orderly end to each assignment, regardless of whether blocking occurs. Blocking is a common problem. The gymnast can be seen standing still on the apparatus for extended periods of time and becomes indecisive.
These long periods can cause emotional reactions to become more conditioned. The equipment becomes unavailable to teammates and embarrassment increases.
A logical end allows the gymnasts to continue and minimizes failures. The assignment could be, for example, to attempt three back handsprings in the 15 second period after mounting the beam.
The opportunity to try again is over if the attempts do not take place within the 15 second time limit. The workout ends after three attempts, regardless of whether the gymnast requests more attempts.
Although the end may initially feel like a relief to the gymnast, it will become something to look forward to over time.
They won’t be able to master the skill, keep pace with others or prepare for upcoming competitions if they don’t know what they are doing. These are examples of alternative success paths:
- 50 attempts without a spot, or 3 consecutive but not necessarily consecutive attempts sans a spot
- 25 attempts without a spot and 1 with a spot
- 50 attempts with a spot, or 3 consecutively without a spot
7. Visualize yourself succeeding mentally.
This may make it difficult to visualize the skill. Some gymnasts have trouble visualizing the skill (a strong characteristic known as blocking); others may see themselves making mistakes while they perform the skill mentally. You can improve your mental performance by watching other people who are able to do the skill or by using a videotape.
If they are able to perform the skill using a spot, but not when trying it alone, then have them perform the skill alternately with a spot. Then immediately try to imagine the skill and recreate the feeling of actually performing the skill.
These sensations could include feeling the impact of landing onto the beam and performing a backhandspring, or smelling chalk dust or the texture of the floor or balance beam.
Also, try to link the physical sensations with your attempts to visualize.
At first, make mental assignments that are simple. For example, imagine at least three successful attempts. Once the gymnast succeeds, you can increase the difficulty of your assignment in reasonable and progressive steps just like with physical performances. For example, 10 successes regardless of how many attempts; then 5 in a row without missing a single attempt; then 10, in a succession, etc.
8. Don’t mislead an athlete about whether or not you will spot.
It is believed that coaches will convince gymnasts that they did the skill by pretending to spot them and then withdrawing their support. The gymnast knows that they are capable of performing the skill. They are being held back by fear and uncertainty.
It is more likely that you will increase uncertainty by abruptly withdrawing the spotting during the middle of a skill.
It is also difficult to maintain trust between coach and gymnast if the coach is seen as manipulating the gymnast into performing without a spot. The goal is for the gymnast’s fear to be overcome by his or her efforts. This success is dependent on the perception that you are in control of the risk.
9. Let them know that they are not the only ones.
Talk to the gymnasts who are having trouble. They should realize they aren’t the only ones having this problem. This is especially true if they can get in touch with an older, more experienced gymnast that has overcome similar blocking problems.
10. To avoid ruining the whole workout, do the “blocked skill” early in your workout.
A successful gymnast will have a great start to their training session. They can relax and enjoy the workout, rather than worrying about what’s next.
11. Allow the gymnast to try the skill “outside the spotlight”.
They may be asked to arrive at practice early or stay until the end. This will help to reduce anticipation and prolong practice. To minimize embarrassment and shame that comes with public failures, practice the skill away from your teammates.
12. Encourage your gymnast to practice the skill in play, or on a mat on a trampoline.
This method also takes the skill out of the situation in which the negative emotions were conditioned repeatedly. For example, a high-slung back handspring may help the gymnast see more clearly.
Although this technique may increase awareness, it could be at the cost of biomechanical efficiency (at least temporarily).
13. Allow the athlete to set the pace of progression through the progressions.
This requires that the gymnast is committed to the skill and not just delay or avoid it. The external pressure can be reduced by knowing that I have the ability to decide when I move on with the progressions. This approach does require a lot of maturity from the gymnast.
14. Encourage the gymnast’s awareness of visual cues during skill performance (known as visual spotting).
Younger gymnasts often learn the skill quickly and rely more on visual cues than kinesthetic. A gymnast who relies solely on their kinesthetic awareness can find visual cues distracting at first. However, young gymnasts often perform the skill successfully with their eyes closed.
Common example: As the gymnast grows, his hands change in order to perform a back handspring on the beam. The beam is 10 cm wide and the hands can be placed side-by-side at first.
As we age, our hands may need to be parallel to the beam, creating subtle alignment changes in our shoulders and torsos, particularly for strong gymnasts with limited shoulder flexibility. This same growth process can also affect foot placements during back handsprings.
16. To remove the block skill, design the optional routines for the gymnast
Although this is not possible in all cases, gymnastics allows for and encourages individual choreography at higher levels.
Blocking can sometimes “come & goes”, so the gymnast may be able to perform a routine where the blocked skill is included or removed at will, without compromising the integrity of the gymnast’s overall floor exercise or uneven bars composition or balance beam composition.
There are ways that can help you to reduce stress.
What causes mental blocks in gymnastics?
Mental blocks can be described as fearful thoughts that arise from one of two causes: your brain protecting you from danger by a primitive response called fight-or flight or your mind being afraid of what might happen.
What are mental blocks examples?
1. You think little. “You don’t think big enough. …
2. Doubt is a fire. “Thinking won’t overcome fear, but taking action will.”
3. Future failures…
4. Dataless decisions…
5. Fuzzy focus…
6. Complex calculations…
7. Motivational manipulation…