Coaches are a really key part to building gymnast confidence, but there are other things that can be done as well and other members of the gymnastics “team” including parents and teammates can do to help as well.
Confidence is absolutely essential to a gymnast’s competitive meet performance. Self-confidence is a sum of all of the positive and negative inputs and experiences in their life that they, subconsciously, relate to their gymnastics performance. And it involves the ability of the gymnast to control their mental state, banishing negative mental images and reinforcing positive ones.
True coaching is not relegated solely to physical development. Successful coaches help gymnast build the confidence they need to win in the face of competitive pressures, which are often much higher in gymnastics than in other sports. So the question is as to what can be done to improve their gymnasts’ confidence?
#1 – The “Team” Needs to Work to Build Each Gymnasts Confidence
In regards to their gymnastics, a gymnast’s confidence is most affected by their
- Their coaches
- Their parents
- Their teammates
Sometimes that order is different in the case of individual gymnasts, but these are always the groups that have the most effect on any gymnast’s confidence. To build a gymnast’s confidence to the maximum degree, all three groups of the “team” must be positively participating in programming gymnast confidence.
#2 – The Gym is a Mirror for Gymnasts
Gymnasts see themselves in the reflection of their gym environment. Different gym environments can cause different reflections. To a great extent a gymnast’s image of themselves is a result of the positive or negative responses of others around them in the gym. Team gymnasts spend more time and money in the gym than any other group and for that, and many other reasons, should be presented with a positive environment, which mirrors their status in the gym.
#3 – Parents Present Their Own Mirror for Their Gymnast
The most important thing parents can provide for their gymnasts (and their gymnast’s success) is unconditional love. Unconditional love, in relation to gymnastics, means that gymnasts know and understand that their parents love them, regardless of how well they do in gymnastics. If gymnasts think their parents will love them less if they don’t “win” or do well at gymnastics meets, parents have failed to give gymnasts a needed basic, solid foundation of support. Unconditional love and support gives gymnasts a basic psychological base of confidence with which to face gymnastics.
#4 – Team Status In the Gym
To some degree, gym owners can positively or negatively affect the confidence of their team’s gymnasts. The status of the team and the members of the team in the gym is communicated rather effectively, either in a negative or a positive manner. While gymnastics teams may not be the source of the biggest profit for a gym, team member’s confidence may be directly affected by gym decisions such as:
- Equipment priority – How much equipment and area of the gym is available for team use during their practice times? Does the team have all of the latest training equipment and stations to allow them equal training footing with the other gymnasts against whom they compete?
- Team visibility in the gym – Are team pictures or posters, meet results, trophies, awards and other visible evidence of team status posted prominently in the gym?
- Training time – Are team gymnasts given the maximum amount of training time that is competitively necessary and beneficial for their success or is less time given with financial or other reasons used as an excuse.
- Gym V.I.P. Status – Are gymnasts given and allowed perks that reflect their position as the best gymnasts in the gym?
#5 – One on One Time with Gymnasts
One of my favorite gymnastics families has four girls who were in the sport, and three boys who were in virtually every other sport. One day, I saw their father and one of the girls at a restaurant early on a Saturday morning eating breakfast together. Later, in the gym I asked her about it. She told me that her dad regularly made time to spend one-on-one with each of them, not just on special occasions like their birthday, but a couple of times a month. Since her dad had already gained my respect for his successful parenting of seven incredible great kids, four of whom, also happened to be role model gymnasts, I started to think how important is was for me to give one-on-one attention to my own gymnasts in the gym. Part of gymnast’s deep-seated confidence in themselves for competing in gymnastics comes from the respect that coaches show them by personal attention before, during and after gymnastics practices.
#6 – Training Team Members to Build Up the Confidence of Their Teammates
I always required my team members to get up, greet, congratulate, celebrate and occasionally commiserate with (in their own way – high five, hug, shake hands) every one of their teammates, after every performance, on every event, at every meet. This is common practice with collegiate teams but rare in age group gymnastics programs. The repetition of this requirement at meets made it a habit for each gymnast to do this, and eventually, gymnasts began to do similar things in the gym, during practices as well. The support of one’s teammates is a huge confidence builder.
#7 – Team Building
There is a team building exercise where the members of a team pass around a sheet of paper, with each teammate’s name on it, and write down something that they appreciate about that team member. Usually, that is done once, or perhaps once a year. The positive effects of this practice can be life altering and life long. In one story about an elementary school teacher who had her students do this, she was surprised, at her retirement, of the stories about how much this had affected her student’s lives. She could not believe how many of them still kept, or even always carried with them, that now well-worn and much-read sheet of paper. One of her students always carried it with him through five tours of duty in the war in Vietnam.
Imagine what could be done if coaches and gymnasts were to verbally do that same thing – tell their teammates what they appreciate about them or what they have done – each and every day in practice. Soaring confidence might be just one of the major results. Require your gymnasts to do it for one month, check after each practice to see that everyone did it, and it will become a year-round habit that will work wonders for gymnast confidence, team bonding and unity.
#8 – The Gym Where Everyone Knows Your Name
This should apply to every gymnast (and parent) in your gym program, but coaches and staff members must know the name of every gymnast they work with. At the team level, coaches should know the gymnast’s first and last name, their nickname, both their parent’s names, (and the names of their grandparents and all their brothers and sisters?). When kids are shown the respect of coaches and adults learning their names that their image of themselves improves and so does their confidence correspondingly.
#9 – Coaches Must Pay Attention and Show an Interest in Their Gymnast’s Life Outside the Gym
Gymnasts have a life outside of the gym, which primarily revolves around their family and school. The smart coach will ask gymnasts about their family, their friends and their other interests and activities. Even more importantly, coaches will listen carefully and show gymnasts that they care enough to remember what gymnasts have talked about and said is important to them. Gymnasts who feel they are important enough for coaches to take interest in, not just for their gymnastics abilities, but because of the person they are, will be more confident.
#10 – Catch Your Gymnasts Doing Something Right
Positive coaching is not just a scientifically valid training system, it is a system for building gymnasts they way you, they and their parents want them to be. Behaviors that are reinforced (praised) tend to be repeated. By reinforcing behaviors, skills, traits, attitudes and other positive characteristics in gymnasts, they will repeat those behaviors turning them into the gymnast you want them to be.
Criticism is more popular, as a coaching pattern, because it seems to deliver good results and improvements in a short time. But it only works in the short-term. Over a longer period of time, the negative tone of criticism tilts the balance of the subconscious in a more negative direction, which can only result in less self confidence for a gymnast. All negative communication from coaches, gymnasts and parents, whether verbal or non-verbal, has some degree of negative impact on gymnasts. Criticism, which is by definition, a predominantly negative communication format, has to have a noticeable negative impact on a gymnasts confidence, when used over and over again for years.
#11 – Positive Coaching
In the long run, real gymnastics confidence is best built by positive reinforcement. Positive conditioning is well-researched, well proven psychological tool for modifying athlete’s behavior in a specific direction. It is, unfortunately an all too easy, too common and normal a practice for coaches to point out gymnast’s mistakes. It should be equally easy for coaches to see what gymnasts are doing right. By praising gymnasts coaches are able to choose those things about their gymnastics you want them to keep and build upon.
Coaching in a positive manner and building up gymnasts by praising what they do well, recognizing when they make a good effort, rewarding their good behavior and complimenting their good performances builds their confidence. If coaches spend more time catching and acknowledging what gymnasts do right, they will find gymnasts make even faster progress and have more confidence.
#12 – Freedom to Make Mistakes
Negative coaching puts too much emphasis on gymnasts trying to avoid making errors or mistakes. I have literally seen gymnasts frozen in one spot afraid to move for fear of making some unknown mistake and being severely criticized for it.
Gymnasts need to know they are allowed to make mistakes and that making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Of course, gymnasts need to avoid making the same mistake over and over again, even if they just change to a different mistake. But progress can only result from change and gymnasts must feel free to make changes (and sometimes, therefore, mistakes), so they can progress in the sport.
#13 – Understanding Their True Place in the World and In the Sport
Team gymnasts are the best gymnasts in their own gym. Team gymnasts are the best gymnasts in the sport. The best gymnasts in the world are on some gymnastics team. Just by virtue of having made the team or being chosen to be put on the team, puts team gymnasts in the top one percent of gymnasts. Coaches should make sure their gymnasts understand how special they are, just to be talented enough to make the team. Any further gymnastics awards and accolades they win, just makes them that much more special. Knowing their true position in the sport should give team gymnasts confidence.
#14 – Coaches Who Accept Responsibility
I am continually amazed at the number of coaches who tell me the reason their team is not winning or at a higher level is because their gymnasts are lazy. Coaches, from I don’t know how many states, have all told me, “Things are different where we live. The gymnasts here just don’t want to work hard enough to get good.” I find it difficult to believe that any coach, who has gymnasts, who go to school all day, and then go to gymnastics practice for 3 – 5 hours, five to six days per week, can even begin to say their gymnasts are lazy. If coaches take the credit when any of their gymnasts are successful, they also need to accept the responsibility for any of the weaknesses in their program. Coaches, who take responsibility for problems in the program, do not falsely rob gymnasts of confidence.
#15 – Positive Expectations
Psychological experimentation has proven that young children will rise (or fall) to the level of expectations of their teachers and coaches. Coaches, who have high expectations for their gymnasts, find their gymnasts will rise to those expectations. Prejudging gymnast’s abilities or chances of success in any negative way, will result in gymnasts living down to those lower expectations.