I get emails every day asking me to write about how to get over a gymnastic mental block. It’s not an easy question to answer. Every gymnast is different, and I never, ever want to encourage a gymnast to do a skill that she might not be able to do safely. But, I know mental blocks are a real problem for gymnasts so I want to try to help. In my quest to figure out a good answer (instead of my standard answer of keep practicing progressions). I read several sports psychology books. After doing more research, I’m not sure the answer is as simple as just addressing the mental block. The answer might be to address everything that goes on in a gymnast’s mind. As Yogi Berra, a famous baseball player, once said “Baseball is 90 percent mental, the other half is physical”. I think the same is true in gymnastics.
After reading the sports psychology books, it seems there are three main areas to focus on when trying to motivate an athlete and to get them in the best mental state possible. The three main focus areas are setting goals that will drive your actions, practicing a mental workout and mastering self talk.
In Mind Gym : An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack, he says that
“Studies have proven that mental training will not only enhance performance and improve productivity but also add to your enjoyment.”
I’ve put together a free Gymnastics Goals Worksheet to help you set some goals like we will talk about below. 🙂
Set Goals for Yourself
One of the most important factors of setting yourself up for success mentally is to set goals. In 10-Minute Toughness: The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins by Jason Selk he discusses how there are three types of goals and it’s important to set goals of each type.
Ultimate Goals: What do you want your life to look like?
Ultimate goals are your end game. They are what you want to look back and have accomplished when you are completely done with gymnastics. For example, when you graduate high-school what do you want to have accomplished? Do you want to have earned a college scholarship for gymnastics or be on your way to becoming an Olympic gymnast?
Product Goals: What do you want to accomplish?
Product goals are results oriented, specific and measurable goals. These are goals you set for yourself for the next year, or by the end of meet season. You might want to set goals for each event for the summer off-season, and then three goals for meet season.
Your goals for the summer off-season would probably be focused on learning new skills. For instance, a soon-to-be level 3 gymnast would most-likely set goals of learning all the skills in the level 3 routines. (Head over here for more information on the gymnastics level requirements.)
Examples of three goals for meet season would be:
- To become a member of the 9.0 club–earn a 9.0 or higher on at least one event at least once this season.
- To stick my beam routine at at least half of my meets this season.
- To qualify to states by earning a 32 or better all-around at a qualifying meet.
Process Goals: What will it take to accomplish your product goals?
Process goals are what it takes to achieve product goals. These goals also must be specific and measurable.
Examples of three process goals for meet season would be:
- To complete a mental workout before each practice and competition
- To stick 5 of each of the skills in my beam routine on my home beam every day.
- To do 5 dance-throughs of my floor routine at home every day, concentrating on squeezing tight and keeping my arms and legs straight and my toes pointed.
In order to make sure you stay focused on your goals, put them where you can see them every day. Also tell others about your goals to keep yourself accountable.
In addition to the main goals you set for yourself, set small goals each day. Ask yourself, how am I going to become a better gymnast today?
In The Ultimate Secrets of Goal Setting by Dr. Kevin Elko, he suggests that gymnasts set 3-5 process goals for each practice and each meet. He says this is a way of making sure that gymnasts are accomplishing and mastering some technique or skill every workout.
After setting your goals, determine a game plan of how you are going to get there. Figure out the sacrifices, self-discipline and focus you will need to reach them. For more on goals, check out 7 Tips to Help you Set and Achieve your Gymnastic Goals.
Give Yourself a Reward
One way to help you achieve your goals is to decide a reward for yourself once you achieve them. This is a good thing for gymnasts to do with their parents. Maybe the reward is that the gymnast gets to pick the restaurant for a family dinner out. Or the reward could be the gymnast gets to have a sleepover with all her friends. Whatever the reward is, it should help motivate you to achieve the goals you set.
Goals are important because they motivate you to do everything you can to achieve them. That doesn’t necessarily mean training constantly, but making your workouts efficient and being open to trying different things in order to improve.
Goals are also important for improving your self-confidence, because you will know that you are both mentally and physically prepared.
Take the First Step
When I told my mom, who is not only a Level 10 Gymnastics Judge, but who also does some executive coaching, that I was writing an article about the mental aspects of gymnastics she told me one of the things she talks about with the executives she coaches, when they make goals. She said the most important thing is to take that first step towards your goal. So they talk about a first safe progression. Once you have done the first safe progression, you have the feeling that you have already started so you can do the rest. Sometimes the hardest part of a goal is to start trying to achieve it. For each of the goals you set, think about the first, easiest thing you can do to achieve your goal, and go do it.
Getting Your Mind Right
In order to start achieving your goals, it’s helpful to imagine yourself as a champion.
In The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, Dr. Jim Afremow discusses how in order to become a champion, imagine what it would look like if you were at the “gold level”, or the best version of yourself consistently. Imagine what it would be like at a normal practice and what you would do differently. He suggests using the phrase “Think gold and never settle for silver.” as a way to shape your daily decisions and motivate you.
Additionally he suggests using the acronym GIGO- think of it as “gold in, gold out.” The more effort you put into practice, the better your performance at a meet. This doesn’t necessarily mean more hours in the gym, but the quality of the effort you exert while you are at the gym. This could be chatting less with your friends at the chalk bucket, or not cheating during conditioning.
Another aspect of getting your mind right is to adopt a no excuses attitude. Taking responsibility for both your success and failures is part of having the mind of a champion. In The Champion’s Mind, Dr. Afremow tells a story about McKayla Maroney at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Maroney was the reigning world vault champion and expected to win gold on vault at the Olympics. She was in first place after her first attempt, but fell to second place after falling on her second vault. She later said “I didn’t deserve to win gold if I landed on my butt.”. Even though that statement could be interpreted as her being really hard on herself, she is taking responsibility for her performance.
Develop a Mental Workout
In 10-Minute Toughness, Selk discusses how you should come up with a mental workout that you do before each practice and each competition. There are several components to this mental workout.
Centering breaths are a technique not only used in sports psychology, but also in yoga or for stress management. The goal of a centering breath is to get air into your diaphragm. You can read about techniques people use to make sure they get air into their diaphragm, but one of the easiest techniques is to count your breath.
In order to do a centering breath as Selk describes, breathe in for six seconds, hold it for two seconds and breathe out for seven seconds. Athletes under 12 should breathe in for four seconds, hold for two seconds and breathe out for five. So those over 12 should do a breath that lasts a full 15 seconds (6-2-7), and athletes under 12 a breath that lasts 11 seconds (4-2-5). The goal is to control your heart rate and calm yourself down so you can think clearly. .
Personal Highlight Reel
Creating a personal highlight reel is a part of the mental workout that builds confidence. When you create your personal highlight reel, make sure you are seeing the images through your own eyes and not like you are observing them from afar.
In 10-Minute Toughness, Selk advises coming up with three 60 second video-clips that you will put together to create your reel. They should be:
- 60 seconds worth of highlights from successful past performances: This can be several images spliced together. It might be from your last meet where you stuck your back-handspring on beam cold with no wobbling, then when you performed a flawless floor routine and the last image could be of when you nailed your vault and won the event. Selk advises that your last image in this 60 seconds worth of clips be your single greatest moment in gymnastics competition.
- 60 seconds worth of mental video clips of an upcoming big meet: This is where you imagine performing at your next big meet flawlessly (your next big meet could be your state or regional competition). In 60 seconds you can imagine performing each of your floor tumbling passes, your beam acro skills, your bar routine and your vault all perfectly. Imagine how it will feel when you perform them all perfectly at this big meet.
- 60 seconds worth of mental video clips from your meet: During this mental video clip imagine yourself performing your skills for your next meet flawlessly. Spend 60 seconds running through in your mind your hardest skills on each event. Make sure that the images in your mind are of what you will see and how it will feel when you perform the skills.
If you are a beginner gymnast and don’t have enough mental “footage” to make a mental highlight reel that is 3 minutes long, don’t worry. Just put together a mental highlight reel of times when you have done your routines or skills really well in practice and it made you feel confident.
Performance statements, as Selk calls them, or cue statements are words you say to yourself before you compete. The statement is designed to help you remove negative or distracting thoughts and replace them with thoughts designed to help you perform your best.
You want it to be the single thought that will make you execute your routine flawlessly. An example for Floor would be “Tight legs, Squeeze throughout”. You can have one performance statement, or four–one for each event. Whether you have one or four will depend on whether the single most important thought to make you successful on that event is the same across all events, or different. Make sure your performance statement is positive; one way to do this is to avoid using the word “don’t”.
In 10-Minute Toughness, Selk tells a story of Sean Townsend, an American gymnast, trying to qualify for the Senior National Team in 2007. Sean Townsend was one of the top American gymnasts in the early 2000s after winning the all-around gold medal at the 2001 US National Championships. But he injured his knee and some thought his career was over.
In 2006 he recommitted to training and began working with Selk. They realized that Townsend had been getting too worried about results, and that was making him mess up while competing. So his performance statement was “One skill at a time, one routine at time.” At the qualifying meet in 2007 Townsend was poised to be able to win the meet. He was able to do this by staying in the moment, and focusing on one skill at a time, with the help of his performance statement.
An identity statement is an important part of the mental workout. This is a statement about your strengths and your ultimate goal. The first part of the statement could be a strength you currently have, or one you wish to have. The second part of the statement is the essence of your ultimate goal. For example, your identity statement could be: “I am the hardest-working member of the team who is constantly trying to improve; I am on my way to the Olympics.”
In The Champion’s Mind, Dr. Afremow also recommends making personal affirmations. He says they will help shape your attitude and “ignite your inner champion”. He says to make sure your statements are in the present tense and use “I am” instead of “I will”.
Putting the Mental Work-Out Together
All of these components go together to form the mental work-out that Jason Selk discusses in 10-Minute Toughness (which I highly recommend you read, if you haven’t gathered that yet). You should be able to combine all of these elements and complete the work-out in less than four minutes. He recommends you do the work-out before every practice and competition. Here is the order:
- Take a Centering Breath
- Tell yourself your Performance Statement
- Visualize your Personal Highlight Reel
- Tell yourself your Identity Statement
- Finish with a Centering Breath
This mental work-out should leave you feeling confident and motivated.
Master Self Talk
Self talk is what you say to yourself constantly throughout the day. In order to motivate and improve your performance you should tell yourself small instructional phrases that help you concentrate and improve.
Dr. Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis and his colleagues at the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Thessaly in Greece did a meta-analysis of 32 previously published sports psychology stuides and they concluded that self-talk can produce significant improvements in sports performance. They also concluded that instructional self talk is better for tasks requiring fine motor skills like gymnastics than motivational self-talk. An example of instructional self-talk for a gymnast would be ” Stay tight and squeezed throughout” or “Keep legs straight and toes pointed”.
Hatzigeorgiadis also stresses the importance of practicing self-talk during training so that it prepares athletes to also use self-talk during competitions. The goal is to perform during competitions to the best of your ability.
In The Champions Mind, Dr. Afremow stresses the importance of self-talk after positive performances and after negative ones. This is where motivational self-talk is useful. An example of this would be, after doing a skill well, a gymnast should say to herself something like, “That’s me. I know how to do this skill and will keep doing it the exact same way.” And after a missed skill, or falling off the beam, the gymnast could say to herself, “That’s not like me. That’s just a blip. I will get back up and perform the rest of this routine like I know I can.”
Another example of when self-talk can be helpful during a competition scenario would be if a gymnast gets to a meet and the equipment isn’t the same as what they are used to, or the stereo isn’t working and so they have to perform without music. A gymnast who frequently uses self-talk would simply say to herself, “I can handle this even though I don’t like it.” This immediately puts a positive spin on a negative situation.
Be able to Re-Focus
An important way to use self-talk would be to help yourself re-focus. An incredible example in gymnastics history of a gymnast re-focusing is Jordyn Wieber at the 2012 Olympics. As the 2011 world all-around champion, Wieber was a favorite to win all-around gold at the Olympics. However, in qualifications she placed fourth behind two of her American teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. Because of the rule that each country can only have two gymnasts in the all-around final, Wieber did not advance. It had always been a goal of hers to compete in the all-around at the Olympics and try to win gold, so this was devastating to her. When she heard the news she burst into tears.
But, because of her mental fortitude, and probably her ability to re-motivate herself with positive self talk , she was back competing in the team competition within 48 hours and helped the US team win gold. She said
“I was pretty disappointed, but I had to put it together mentally, especially for this team. A team gold medal was also officially a goal of mine, and I had to pull myself together and move on and be stronger mentally for the team.”
What about Mental Blocks?
You might be thinking, how is this going to help me with my gymnastics mental block?
In 10-Minute Toughness, Selk references Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, in which he cites a study that says:
“every minute of visualization is worth seven minutes of physical practice”
So, if you have a mental block on an individual skill, the first thing you need to do is to be able to see and feel yourself performing the skill perfectly. You need to be able to visualize everything as if you were actually performing the skill. If the mental block is a back-handspring on beam, you need to be able to visualize starting the skill, feeling your arms swing back, seeing and feeling your hands on the beam in the middle of the skill, feeling your legs kicking over your head, and then what you will see when you have successfully landed on the beam. Before every attempt, run through a perfect one in your mind first. You can also run through a perfect one when you wake up in the morning, in the middle of the day, and before you go to sleep at night. If one minute of visualization is worth seven minutes of practice, it can’t hurt!
(Also, as a side note– visualization is a great way to improve without physically practicing when you are hurt, or tired.)
Along with visualization, practice is a great way to increase your confidence around a skill. You don’t have to only practice the skill, you can practice progressions. For example, if the skill that you are worried about is a back-handspring on beam, you can do tons of back-handsprings on a line, and back-handsprings on a low beam to gain confidence. When it comes time to actually do the skill, do it with your coach spotting you (after you have done the visualization!) until you feel comfortable. There is power in repetition.
One of the reasons it’s important to go through your goals, is that if this skill is part of them, then thinking about your goals will keep you focused and motivated to learn this skill. Going through your mental workout will help give you the self-confidence and focus you need to master it. And self talk will help you tell yourself that you can do it.
Additional Mental Tips for Becoming the Best Gymnast You Can Be
- Emphasize Improvement over Perfection in your mind. Instead of going into practice every day trying to be perfect, try instead to simply improve every day.
- Learn from Mistakes. Not every routine in every meet will be perfect. But for every routine that isn’t perfect, there is an opportunity for improvement. Asking your coach after every meet for one thing that you could improve on would be a great way to make sure you are constantly learning from mistakes.
- Leave Everything at the Gym Door. Make sure when you go to practice that all you are thinking about is gymnastics. There will be time to think about personal things later, but while you are at practice it’s important to free your mind from other distracting thoughts. This will help you have a more successful practice. And your mind will be clear and fresh to think about your other worries later!
- Work on Improving your Confidence. Check out these 7 Ways to Develop Confidence as a Gymnast.
I hope after reading this you are excited about setting some goals for yourself, creating the components of the mental workout, and working on positive self talk. As Shannon Miller said,
” I think it’s really important to look at the big picture instead of just one competition”
So, there is always room for improvement and it’s never too late to work to become the best version of yourself. For some additional motivation, check out gymnastics quotes from famous gymnasts and coaches.