In gymnastics, fear can rear its ugly head in many different ways.
Fear might show up when you’re trying to learn a new skill and your mind is telling you that you can’t do it.
Fear might show up as debilitating nerves at a competition.
Fear might appear as a mental block that you just can’t shake no matter how hard you try.
Fear is different for every gymnast, but regardless of how it shows up, the same is true for all gymnasts – fear can be a significant obstacle to overcome and can shut you down in your tracks when you least expect it.
Why Does Fear Show Up
Fear shows up when your brain senses a threat to your body and prepares it to take physical action. This threat might come from your body being afraid of hurting itself or from fear of the unknown such as not knowing what might happen to you when you do the skill or whether you’ll actually throw the skill or not.
Your body is hard-wired to protect itself from danger as a basic biological mechanism that all humans have. So if your brain senses this danger, it will respond by doing things that will help you either flee from that danger or stay and fight.
This is called the fight-or-flight response and its job is to keep you alive.
The fight-or-flight response will do things like increase how fast your heart is beating, quicken your breathing, and make you sweat more to cool your body off. Blood flow to your heart increases as your body does everything it can to help you get out of danger.
While this is a great response when you’re in significant danger, it’s not as helpful when you’re trying to perform a skill that your body can already do or when you’re about to compete routines you’ve practiced over and over.
In cases like this, you need to assure your mind that your body is not in any significant danger or else the fear response will continue to kick in.
How Fear Shows Up
Fear can show up as both a physical and mental response.
All great gymnasts experience a physical response when they’re afraid or nervous, such as when they’re about to compete. This is a normal part of the competition process and can actually help gymnasts with their performance. They might feel their heart race, their palms sweat, or their breathing increase. This is their body’s natural response to getting that gymnast out of the way of danger. And while there is no real danger at a competition, this response prepares the body for action. If channeled correctly, this response can help a gymnast perform better because she is more alert, her muscles are primed for enhanced performance, and her body is doing everything in its power to maximize energy use.
However, when this physical response gets paired with a mental response it can affect a gymnast’s performance in a negative way. A negative mental response might be things like overthinking, doubting your ability, or questioning your readiness. If a gymnast starts to feel the physical reaction (heart pumping, sweating, shortness of breath) and then uses that as a trigger to let her thoughts become negative (“I can’t do this” or “I’m going to mess up”) as a result of that physical reaction, then that’s when her performance can really start to suffer.
Our goal, then, is to help you recognize the physical response and learn how to control it without letting your mental response kick into overdrive.
So what does fear feel like? Fear feels different for everyone which makes it highly important for gymnasts to recognize when their own signs of fear pop up.
(If you’re a coach, ask your gymnast to do this exercise below as a helpful tool for recognizing fear)
Recognizing Fear Exercise:
To do this exercise, close your eyes and think back to a time when you were fearful in gymnastics.
What did that fear feel like to you in your body?
Did your chest feel tight, did you have trouble breathing, was your stomach doing flip flops, were your palms sweaty? Did your feel like you were going to get sick or pass out? Did your want to run and hide? Were you about to cry?
Take a few minutes doing this exercise so that you have a clear understanding of what it feels like to be experiencing the fear response. You can even write down your answers for future memory. If you haven’t already, download and go through our Fear Assessment Quiz.
Again, recognizing this fear response is vital to learning how to shut it down. It’s important to understand that when a gymnast experiences these symptoms in her body it’s because her brain is doing what it’s hard-wired to do and not necessarily because there is real danger there. However, her brain will perceive it as a real threat until she can convince it otherwise. So to that gymnast, this fear feels very real.
As an analogy, think of a smoke detector in your kitchen. It’s common that your smoke detector goes off when you’ve burnt the toast or overcooked the bacon but there is no real fire or threat. To combat this false alarm, you would wave the smoke away from the fire extinguisher or turn it off manually because there is no threat. But since your smoke detector doesn’t know any better and is reacting to potential signs of threat, it will continue to make a sound until it doesn’t sense the threat anymore.
Gymnasts need to alert their own personal smoke detectors in their brain that there is no real threat. Otherwise their smoke detectors will continue to act as if there is a threat and do things that cause their body to go into high alert.
At the heart of it, fear is about the perception of danger. So it’s important to focus on ways to change that perception.
Now that we’ve given you a better understanding of what fear feels like, you can take action when you feel it start to creep in.
Below we’ve come up with 3 ways to shut down fear. These are great tools to use when you’re competing or when you’re in the gym learning a new skill or when you’re experiencing a mental block.
3 Ways to Shut Down Fear in Gymnastics
Number 1: Take deep breaths
One of the quickest ways to trick your brain out of the fear response is to assure it that there’s nothing dangerous going on. You can do this by breathing. While this might seem like a really simple method, the truth is, it has a very profound effect on your brain. If you were in a burning building, your first response would be to run as fast as you could out of that building. You most certainly wouldn’t stay in place and take deep breaths in and out, right? So your brain is smart enough to realize that if you’re not fleeing a situation, then it’s probably not a threatening one.
To breathe, place your palms on either side of your rib cage and take big breaths that expand your hands out to your sides. You want these to be deep, full breaths that go down into your lungs as opposed to shallow upper respiratory breathing.
Focus on holding the air in for 3 seconds and then slowly letting the air out. You can even close your eyes and imagine the air filling up your lungs like a balloon and the balloon deflating as you breathe out.
When you start to feel the fear response coming on, as you identified for yourself earlier, immediately stop and take deep breaths in and out. Remind yourself mentally that “all is well” and that “there is no danger here.” Continue breathing until you feel your body calm down to a more normal state. Remember, a little bit of nerves or feelings of butterflies are alright, especially if you’re competing or learning a new skill. It’s when you let those feelings start to affect your thoughts that it becomes particularly problematic.
Number 2: Take the pressure off
Most often gymnasts experience fear because of the extreme pressure they’re feeling. This could be self-imposed pressure or pressure felt from others such as coaches, teammates, or parents. Ironically, this is something that most gymnasts are not aware is happening until it’s become a big source of angst.
Some examples of pressure might be this feeling that you HAVE to learn or compete a particular skill because it’s required for your routine. Maybe there’s a time crunch (like you need the skill for a meet that weekend) or the pressure of having to do well (because you want to get a college scholarship or get a spot on a certain team).
While you might truly NEED the skill by a certain date in order to compete it in your routine, your brain doesn’t work on deadlines. In fact, the pressure you put on yourself to get the skill by a certain date will cause your brain to shut your body down completely, which is often how a mental block happens.
To combat this, it’s helpful to remind yourself that even if you didn’t get the skill, all is still well. Tell yourself things such as “I’ll get it when I get it” and “There’s no rush; what will be, will be.”
You have to take that pressure off so that your brain can step back and allow your body to do the work again. Again, this isn’t a quick fix. Sometimes letting go of the fact that this skill is a necessity can help a gymnast feel better and allow her brain to ease up almost immediately but taking this pressure off permanently takes time and consistent effort.
While taking the pressure off might not eliminate your fear in the exact moment it happens, it will help you overcome that fear much more quickly and help that fear stay away for the long-term. Some gymnasts get stuck in the cycle of thinking everything is important to getting a college scholarship or making a certain team. They might rush through learning skills too quickly or just feel pressure to continue learning new, more difficult skills all the time. This pressure is debilitating, even if a gymnast doesn’t realize it’s there.
A better question to ask might be “If I didn’t get this college scholarship or make it to level 10, would I still survive?” When gymnasts have their whole lives tied up to the sport of gymnastics they can be especially susceptible to fear. And more often than not, this fear may repeat itself, even after getting over it in the past.
Number 3: Look for the Next Best Step
This is something that most gymnasts and coaches don’t want to hear, but when a gymnast is experiencing fear, she needs to do things to make herself feel comfortable again. Most coaches will push their gymnasts to work through it or try the blocked skill again. But in reality, this method only causes more fear.
However, if a gymnast can recognize when she is having a fear response and alert her coach to what she’s experiencing, in partnership they can decide what might be helpful for that gymnast to do next. Gymnasts should really take the lead on this, though, because it’s important that what she does next is something she feels comfortable doing.
The way for a gymnast to tell what her next step should be is to think about doing something related to the skill that is causing her fear and see how it makes her feel. If she gets stuck on a round-off back handspring, it might be helpful for her to do her round-off, stop and then do a standing back handspring. Maybe she needs to go to the air track and do the roundoff back handspring or do the complete pass with a spot.
Only she will know what she feels comfortable doing in that moment. Her brain will tell her if she thinks she can do it or not. She’ll get those little butterflies when it’s just outside her comfort zone but it won’t feel like extreme fear. Pushing her just to the edge of this comfort zone will help her move past her fear. Any more and she’ll balk or develop a mental block.
Without a doubt, gymnasts have to trust their gut when it comes to fear and go with what feels like the next best step they can do. The pressure coaches sometimes put on their gymnasts to “just do it” can be detrimental to a gymnast’s future success with that skill. Therefore, the next best step is something that both gymnasts and coaches are on board with.
It’s important to remember that overcoming fear is a long term strategy. Most well-meaning coaches do not allow fear to take hold, thinking that the best scenario is to move past it as quickly as possible. But fear has its own agenda and cannot be sent away before your gymnast’s brain is confident that there is no danger. Instead a better approach is to meet the gymnast where she is and do whatever feels better in the moment to her, even if it means going back to the beginning or working with a spot. It’s also important to use the breathing strategy we mentioned when feeling the signs of physical fear coming on in order to shut down the mental fear response that so often gets tied to the physical response. Finally, when a gymnast can simply take off the pressure she’s feeling by making a mental shift and realizing that life will go on even if that goal is not met, this can substantially lessen the fear she feels.