As a gymnast, you’ve probably been there before. Trying to do a skill you’ve done in the past but feeling like you just can’t do it. It’s not that your body can’t perform the skill because it can. It’s not that you don’t want to do the skill because you do. It’s that you can’t. You just can’t.
Explaining balking and mental blocks to non-gymnasts is nearly impossible. How can you explain to them that something in your mind just stops you from doing a skill? How can you explain that even though you know you can do the skill and really want to do it, your mind just tells you no. It’s something inside that makes you feel stuck. And you can’t seem to shake it no matter what you do. In fact, the harder you try to do the skill, the worse it gets!
Your coaches might say “Don’t think about it. Just do it.” But the thing is, you ARE trying really hard not to think about it so much. You ARE trying to just throw the skill. But you can’t. You physically can’t do it even though you know you physically CAN do it. That’s the sticky part. Your body can do it, but your mind won’t let it.
Mental blocks have been a long studied phenomenon in sport psychology given their ability to disrupt even the most successful of athletes. But in gymnastics, mental blocks can affect more than a gymnast’s ability to successfully complete a skill. They can disrupt her entire career. A mental block on one skill can quickly spiral into a loss of confidence. It can create a fear that can spread to more than just the skill in question but to an entire group of skills such as anything backwards.
Mental blocks can also affect things other than skills. You might blank out during a routine or even choke at your meet when you’re under pressure. These are all versions of mental blocks that can be equally devastating and frustrating.
Where A Mental Block in Gymnastics Comes From
So where does a mental block come from? The first part in learning how to overcome mental blocks is understanding where they come from. Mental blocks are a type of fear that usually comes from one of two different causes – your brain keeping you safe from danger through a primitive response known as fight-or-flight or your mind being afraid of the unknown or what might happen.
Everyone is hard wired with a fight-or-flight response, also known as an acute stress response, that protects your body from danger. This response is triggered by hormones that prepare your body to stay and fight the threat or flee by running away to safety. The fight-or-flight response can happen when faced with a physical threat such as a dog attacking you or when faced with a psychological threat such as having to give a speech in front of a large crowd. In either case, your body’s response is the same. Your heartbeat and inspiration rate increase to provide energy and oxygen to your body. Blood flows to your muscles and away from your skin. Your pupils dilate and your body begins to sweat. These are all signs that your body is preparing itself to escape the danger that it perceives to be a threat.
Unfortunately, sometimes your brain can’t recognize when a threat poses a real danger versus when a threat is something that can be ignored. For example, when you are trying to perform a skill in gymnastics that your body perceives as a threat, your fight-or-flight response might kick in. While this response might be helpful if you’re sprinting across a 4 inch wide log over a rapid river to escape a jungle animal, it’s not helpful if you’re trying to perform a back handspring on a 4 inch wide beam. In addition, the fight-or-flight response can kick in even if it imagines a perceived threat, such as in a phobia or when you think about negative things happening.
So if mental blocks are the result of the fight-or-flight response kicking into overdrive, how can we stop this response from happening so that we can get past a mental block and perform the skill in question? We make it clear to our brain that the threat is no longer there. Below we give you five ways to overcome a mental block in gymnastics.
5 Ways to Overcome a Mental Block in Gymnastics
Number One: Take Deep Breaths
When your body is in fight-or-flight mode it takes shallow, quick breaths in order to increase inspiration and provide oxygen to its muscles. One way to trick your brain away from the stress response is to slow down your breathing. If you notice your heartbeat racing, palms sweating, and feel the anxiety coming on, take a few minutes to breathe deeply. Focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly and as deep into your belly as you can.
As you learn to control your breathing, your brain will calm down its fight-or-flight response and release hormones that turn off the stress response. If you were truly running from a predator you wouldn’t be sitting there taking calming breaths and your brain is smart enough to know this. So deep belly breathing helps to turn off the fight-or-flight response.
Number Two: Relax Your Muscles
When you’re experiencing a mental block, you’ll notice that your muscles are tense. If this tension continues it increases the likelihood that the fight-or-flight response will continue because muscle tension is a way of preparing your body for the stress response. Similar to breathing, you need to tell your body that there is nothing to be afraid of.
One way to do this is to pay attention to each of your muscle groups one at a time and to relax them. Start from your shoulders, since that’s the place most people hold tension first, and imagine your muscles melting like ice cream. Feel them getting soft and floppy like a noodle. As you breathe in, imagine your breath going to that muscle and taking away the tightness.
You can do this quickly as you’re standing there in the gym in between skills or as you’re waiting to compete at a meet. In either case, the main goal behind this exercise is to have awareness of where you’re holding your tension and being able to release it in that moment.
Number Three: Imagine Yourself Doing the Skill In Your Mind
Your brain is a complex system that uses all its senses to produce responses. Using imagery techniques can “trick” your brain into believing your body can do something. When you feel stuck and are unable to perform a skill you once could perform, one of the best ways to get past this is to spend time imagining yourself performing the skill you’re struggling on. See yourself going through each of the motions of your skill in slow motion. Make it as realistic as possible. What sounds do you hear? What does the gym smell like? How do your muscles feel? The more details you can add to your imagery, the more likely you are to convince your brain that you can do the skill again.
If you find yourself getting stuck on one section of your skill, keep going through that part until it feels better. Sometimes it’s not the skill as a whole that can cause fear but one particular part of it, such as the going backwards part or the upside down part. And often these little fears might have come from a skill that wasn’t related to the skill you’re trying to do. If you can’t seem to get past that part of the skill that seems stuck then it could be that you need to physically practice that part over and over. If it feels like a fear of going backwards then you might spend time by the pit throwing back tucks until this feels better.
While you might not have a lot of time to imagine yourself doing the skill you’re blocked on in that particular moment, it’s enough to make a difference if you do it consistently enough. So while you’re waiting for your turn you can “practice” your skill in your mind a few times. And then most importantly, continue to practice this imagery at home when you’re away from the gym.
Number Four: Dial It Down A Notch Until You Feel More Confident
It’s common to lose skills or balk when pressure is high. Maybe you need a particular skill for your next meet or maybe you need that skill to move up to the next level. So if you lose that skill it usually means you’re feeling the pressure to get it back right away. And that might mean you keep trying the skill until you get it. But unfortunately this can make your mental block worse which can add to the stress of getting the skill in time.
Instead, in order to get past a mental block you need to figure out what you CAN do in that moment and be ok with just doing that. When you experience a mental block your confidence decreases. Your goal then should be to go back and break down your skill until you’re doing steps that you feel comfortable with even though you’re dialing it down a notch.
For example, if all of a sudden you lose your front handspring on vault, you might feel like you have to keep trying it until you get it. But chances are you’ll just sprint down the runway and balk at the last minute if you don’t feel confident that you can do it. The more you balk, though, the lower your confidence gets and with each pass you’re actually increasing the likelihood that your mental block will continue. What you should do, instead, is think of the next step that you can do that feels a little out of your comfort zone but that you are sure you will do. In this case, you might go back and do a front handspring with your coach spotting you. If this is too much you might do a drill where you run up to stacked mats and do a front handspring to your back. If that’s still too much, then you dial it down another notch. Maybe you just do some front handsprings on floor until you feel more confident with the motion. Once you gain your confidence on that, you could then practice jumping onto the board and going up to handstands onto stacked mats.
Even though it might feel like you’re taking two steps backwards, you need to do what makes you feel confident again, even if it’s not the skill. More often than not, this will be something that’s different than what your coaches think you should do. But trust your gut and figure out what makes YOU feel confident again. And then have an honest conversation with your coach about what you really need in order to feel confident in that moment. Most coaches will understand if you communicate with them.
Number Five: Focus on Something Positive In That Moment
When you’re experiencing a mental block, it’s easy to only focus on the negative and to feel like it’s something you’ll never overcome. Your emotions can take over and your thoughts can start to spiral downward quickly. Eventually you might start to dread the skill and even start to dread practice. But even though a mental block might feel like a black-or-white situation where you can either do the skill or not, it’s really a complex fear that’s comprised of many factors. When you start to focus on things that are positive during this stress response it will calm down your nervous system and help you overcome the negative feelings more quickly.
So what can you think about that’s positive? Perhaps you all of a sudden can’t seem to connect your back walkover-back handspring on beam and it has you frustrated. Instead of dwelling on this, think about all the things you CAN do well and get lost in those positive feelings. Look around at all your gym friends and be thankful for those friendships. Look at the rips on your hands and be thankful you have the ability to swing around the bars. Be thankful for your coach who shows up every practice to help you. Whatever you think about, make sure it feels good to you and gets your mind off the lost skill. You can always find something positive in every situation. After you refocus your thoughts to more positive thoughts, repeat this mantra: ”This too shall pass!”
Mental blocks are frustrating and can leave even the best gymnasts feeling less than confident. It can feel at times like you’ll never get past them. What’s worse is that you know you’re capable of doing the skill and yet it’s so hard for you to “just do it.” You can feel embarrassed and unsure in front of your coaches and teammates. And you might even want to quit. But the good news is that there’s hope! By practicing the techniques we discussed in this article such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and imagery you can learn how to turn off the stress response and decrease your body’s reaction to the perceived threat of danger. You can also build up your confidence by imagining yourself doing the skill successfully since your brain can’t tell the difference between something it perceives in your mind versus reality. Dialing it down a notch can also build up confidence and help you slowly regain the ability to complete your skill. Finally, keeping a positive mindset can counteract your mind’s tendency to take a negative spin on the situation which will leave you feeling more calm and can in turn decrease the stress response.