How to Overcome Psychological Blocks in Gymnastics

Gymnastics Psychology Tips: How to Overcome Psychological Blocks in Gymnastics

With the right adjustments psychological blocks can be beaten

Gymnastics is a sport that tests many abilities such as balance, flexibility, strength and the execution of acrobatics movements.  It is a very challenging sport, with gymnasts often coming up against significant psychological blocks.  These difficulties can be due to a variety of reasons such as low self-esteem, critical thinking, excessive pressure, as well as traumatic or adverse life events. 

In terms of traumas, gymnasts may have experienced injuries or witnessed somebody else get injured during a training or a competition. Also, they can be affected by watching a video of an gymnast injuring themselves.  For exampple, perhaps through a a bad fall on an horizontal bar during a dismount.  Additionally, it is important to be aware that gymnasts can develop post traumatic symptoms, anxiety or performance blocks, by imagining the worst possible scenario happening to them such as a bad fall from a balance beam resulting in permanent injuries, or worse death.   

Because the brain does not distinguish between what is imagined from what is experienced, we perceive what we think and visualise that as reality. As a result of this, we can be vicariously traumatised. Secondary traumatisation or vicarious traumatisation can, in fact, happen by only listening or vividely imagining a trauma as if it was happening to us. 

Although, some gymnasts may have not witnessed, experienced or imagined a traumatic scenario, a great deal of pressure can be imposed on them.  This pressure can come from a very strict and rigid coach, internal pressures or high expectations that their parents put on them.  These extra pressures can then affect a gymnast’s performances with the possible consequence of creating psychological blocks.  As a result of this, it is very important to provide a supportive environment, especially when the gymnast is a child and is highly dependent on adults.

Some basic, but very helpful supportive strategies could be listening and welcoming the child’s needs.  Creating a safe and positive space to allow children to express their fears and vulnerability, giving them permission to be human. 

This can be often be very difficult for parents as they invest a lot of time and energy by chauferring their children to and from training facilities and taking their children to tournaments across the country or internationally.  A lot of the time parents have to juggle many situations related to their professional and personal life on the top of supporting their children in the development of their athletic skills therefore it is very understandable that it might be difficult to be attuned and help the young ones to overcome performance difficulties.  

Reflecting on some past cases I have come across as a Sports Psychologist, a 15 year old gymnast who had psychological blocks after witnessing her friend falling off the balance beam went on to imagine this happening to her with the result of a fatal injury.

Subsequently, she was unable to complete skills and perform on the balance beam.  She  was no longer in control of her muscles often having panic attacks which also affected her self-esteem. When we further explored her performance issues, it appeared that not only she had a very critical self-view, but her mother and coach was playing a major role in putting extra pressure on her.  

When an athlete, like my former client, feels anxious and frustrated and makes comparisons with others, excessive criticism and pressure can increase feelings of inadequacy.  In her case, her body became tense, her muscles lost their fluidity and her performance was affected as she was no longer in control of her body.  

How can parents help their children when they have psychological blocks? 

It can be helpful to allow children to express their vulnerabilities and fears, this can help them feel loved no matter how successful they perform.

Most of the time the typical response is to mainly focus on the technicalities disregarding the importance of the psychological and emotional aspects of performance.   Forcing young gymnasts to try too hard.  This puts a great deal of pressure to perform competitively and can go on to influence their thoughts, their emotions and can also affect their motivation.  Taking away the playful side of the sport.   When coaches or parents place a great deal of pressure, rigidity and control this activates the sympathetic nervous system resulting in the child not being able to find a flow state or their optimal performance zone. 

To sum up here are 4 tips to help young gymasts

  1. Be supportive with young gymasts and listen compassionately to their fears and vulnerabilities .
  2. Reduce excessive pressures, allowing gymnasts to be playful.  This will help them keep their levels of motivation higher.   
  3. Remember, it is not only about results.
  4. Make sure gymnasts have a balanced routine made of training, rest and fun.

I sincerely hope that this article helps you understand how we as Sport Psychologists can assist gymnasts with these types of challenges.  Many people give up easily when they are faced with psychological blocks however this doesn’t have to be the case, with the right type of support and guidance they can be overcome. 

If you found this article helpful you may also enjoy our conversation on the topic.

You can also join our online community – THE SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY HUB – for regular Sports Psychology tips, podcasts, motivation and support.

Alessia Bruno

Best Wishes

Alessia Bruno

Clinical and Sport Psychologist, EMDR Europe Consultant and Performance Coach based in Italy who offers Online Sports Psychology Coaching around the world.

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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