Gymnastics Fear – Scared On Bars

Hi I’m 13 and have been doing gymnastics since I was 10.  I absolutely love it and want my career to be all about gymnastics.  I have good flexiblility, great balance and my strength is ok (not great on upper body strength though)

I know I can do a lot more stuff than I’m doing, but anytime I try I get scared, especially on bars.  Do you have any tips to help me overcome my fears?

Thanks,

A

While we have solutions to gymnastics fear problems, at this point they are only available by hiring us to come for a week and fix them, which is very, very expensive. But we do understand the gymnastics fear problem as well or better than anyone and have some concrete suggestions for working on the problem yourself that we have seen work.

If you don’t mind, I am using your question to pass along a lot of information about gymnastics and fear.

There are a number of things that we do know about dealing with a gymnastics fear problem from a “normal” coaching/parental point of view. The more pressure that is applied to the athlete, the worse the result. Fear is a reality to these athletes and verbal pressure, deadlines, psychological pressure, etc., from coaches, parents or teammates make the situation worse not better.

When you are attempting to solve gymnastics fear problems, athletes and coaches need to back up in the progression to a place where they are comfortable and work slowly back up. Coaches need to be patient, spot a lot, be supportive and understand the athlete’s problem. Parents need to be understanding and not push and complain about lack of progress. This extra pressure just complicates the situation.

We have found that changing the technique (the way a gymnast does the skills in question) may speed progress. For example, with gymnasts who used to do flyaways with their legs perfectly together, we have them somersault with their legs apart. The change seems to help differentiate the skills and sometimes allow some progress. We get the feet back together later when they have overcome the fears.

The good news is that the gymnastics fear problems usually disappear over time. Gymnasts often “grow out” of the problem. The problem is that the period of time can be a year or more and that there can be multiple recurrences until they get over it completely. Obviously this can severely affect their gymnastics career and progress.

What can we tell you to do on your own:

  • Learn to recognize and control your “self-talk.” While the problem already exists, more negative self-talk only makes it worse or delays the achieving of the solution.
  • Write your own positive affirmations – specific to the problem, personal (use the word “I”) and completely positive statements (no use of the word “not” or other negative words.). For example, don’t say “I’m not scared to do back giants.” say “I am always confident doing my back giants.”
  • Either read them daily or put them on an iPod or CD read and spoken preferably by yourself in a very positive and confident tone of voice. Edit out any mistakes or negatives. Play that mp3/CD on repeat track every night without fail or as much as is practical in your life (you don’t need to take it on sleep-overs).
  • Find and work with a patient tumbling coach who is aware of the problem and knowledgeable about what to do, which is to back up to whatever point in the progression so you are comfortable and work slowly back.
  • Try setting very specific personal (that means you decide what they are) very, very small goal steps for each bar practice.
  • Continue working on any other bar skills, which are not connected to the problem to build general bar and personal confidence.
  • Enlist your parents to provide parental support and understanding for the problem and praise for any small successes.
  • One of the best ways to build self-confidence and possibly help overcome this problem is to build strength. We are talking about a strength program that is intense enough to produce endorphins, not a strength maintenance program where, say, you do basically the same exercises every time you workout.

The characteristics of a strength program that would work to the extent that we are talking about is a strength program that is intense, regularly performed, progressive in difficulty and approaches the maximum workout of which an athlete is capable.

It is also desirable to make sure the strength program to includes exercises that will directly affect the skill for which renewed confidence is needed. For example, for fear of back handsprings, handstand push-ups would be useful and the extra strength gained could help build confidence that the athlete is capable of keeping themselves off their head.

Intense strength training creates an overall feeling of well-being and confidence that can transfer into tumbling skill confidence and aid any other efforts in overcoming gymnastics fear and regaining confidence.

Change

If you are not succeeding at what you are doing, change the approach, change the training method, change the equipment (to strap bars, the low bar, into a pit, etc.), or change the speed at which you are doing it.

Change your approach to the problem so that what you are  doing is different enough that the old fear pattern, isn’t recalled. When you are doing the skills again without problems, it will be easy to go back and correct the temporary technique changes.

Everyone who coaches gymnastics has seen the fear problems of gymnasts from time to time. You can see it at meets all the time.  It is not uncommon at all for a coach to have to provide extra help for a gymnast, especially one who had a bad fall and is now having psychological trouble.

It is helpful in dealing in this situation to have as much information about what likely is the cause of the fear. Information about what skill the gymnast fell on, what skills they are having trouble with (e.g. jumping to high bar), what their highest level of bar skill is/was and what bar skills you can still do.

It is also possible for gymnastics fear to originate from having seen another gymnast fall, either on the skill of which they are afraid, but also possibly on some completely unrelated skill. Complicating the situation can be human’s innate fear of falling backwards. There can be a variety of causes or even a combination of causes.

Obviously a fall, especially a bad fall doing the skill can cause the problem. The fear can also come from seeing someone else fall either on the same skill or even another skill. Sometimes when athletes figure out that they are not “immortal” and that they could get injured, this can be the cause. Fear, resulting just from gymnasts realizing they are not invincible and are capable of getting hurt, often occurs around puberty. All of these causes are psychological in nature and are in essence often best solved with a mental training solution.

Recognizing that a single accident is not likely to reoccur or that something that happened to someone else is not likely to happen to her is both reality and a step on the road back.

The fear of and lack of confidence in a single bar skill can spread and start to affect other skills, both on bars and on other events as well. It is best to start dealing with the gymnastics fear problem as soon as possible to avoid an even more major deterioration of skills.

Traditionally good coaches have just backed up in the teaching progression and re-taught the skill to try to deal with the fear problem. Often, gymnasts want to be spotted for quite some time before they regain their confidence enough to do the skill by themselves.

In the middle of a season, fear is a difficult problem to deal with, because more pressure to perform most often results in even more lack of confidence and an even slower solution to the problem. The time it takes to overcome fear is frustrating to both coach and athlete.

Sometimes gymnasts have not been reviewing their basics (like good round-off technique) and their skills have developed one or more bad habits that actually do make their performing round-off back handsprings something they should worry about. In this case, only actual physical correction of the errors will truly work. For this, the solution is a coaching review and correction of the technical problems with the skill.

Another effective method, which can be started immediately is careful mental practice of the skill(s) that are problems. Mental practice can be beneficial, if and only if, it is positive – meaning that the gymnasts only imagine themselves doing the skill perfectly without falls or interference from fear.

Mental practice should include both set and setting – at the gym and at the competition with the entire environment being imagined with the skill. Make sure your gymnasts knows that scientific research has shown that perfect mental practice is more effective than physical practice because there are no errors ever made. Still, we don’t find this as successful an approach as we would like but it can help speed up the natural getting over fear process.

Back Up in Progression

Patience is an important coaching virtue to deal with fear problems. Trying to rush the gymnast back into form, pressuring them, threatening them, putting time constraints on their recovery from the problem and other negative reactions most often and most likely will just delay a solution.

Backing up in progression to a point where the gymnast is comfortable and secure is the best physical training response to the fear problem. Backing up includes backing up in equipment progressions, backing up in skill progression and reverting to spotting the gymnast on the skill in question.

It is very important to find a point of confidence somewhere in the skill progression from which to work forward. For bars, this often may mean a return to earlier skill progressions or easier skill repetitions.

You will want to begin to rebuild the skill motor patterning that the fear is interfering with.

If the gymnast is still able to do the bar skill into the pit or with a spot, this can also be a good patterning method to reprogram confidence in the skill for the bars. Moving from the pit to the regular bars ore from the low bar to the high bar with a skill can be the start of the rebuilding of confidence.

Gymnasts most often want to be spotted if they have become fearful. This can serve as method of getting the gymnast to do the skill combination on the actual competition or performance surface.

Spotting in this situation also brings back the eternal problem with spotting, which is how and when to wean the gymnast off the spot, which in this fear situation is more difficult than usual.

Spotters also need to be ready for the tumbler to balk in the middle of the skill, in which case they must be prepared to be solely responsible for keeping the athlete off their head. It is not uncommon for fearful gymnasts to balk, so spotters need to be aware and beware.

Success at the current level is the key to progress. The more balks and other negatives can be avoided the smoother the return to confidence in the skill. Tired gymnasts are more likely to balk so marathon sessions may not be the answer.

If you want to try to speed up the progress, try using a number of spaced short sessions within a practice. Instead of spending an hour straight repeating over and over the progressions, try using three 20 minute spaced practice periods. You are more likely to make progress and have success. Preferably, use the intervening periods to practice something in which your athlete is likely to have success.

Build Confidence with Advanced Progressions

Since fear is negative psychological construct, it makes sense to fight the negative psychology with positive psychology. One way to do this is to rebuild confidence by having the gymnast successfully perform more advanced skills with which they have no fear or psychological problems or learn new skills.

The most confidence from this technique comes from using or learning skills in the same skill category. The skills don’t necessarily have to be done on the competition bars or competition landing surface to help with the positive psychological contribution.

Gymnasts who come to realize emotionally that they are capable of doing skills much harder than the ones, of which they are afraid, will likely recover from the effects of the fear more quickly.

Positive Reinforcement

Coaches and gymnasts need to have a good perspective on the fear problem. They need to understand that it is a common problem at all levels of the sport and that many successful gymnasts with high level gymnastics skills have been through and survived the same experience.

It is good to emphasize to gymnasts that the fear problem will certainly be overcome sooner or later and that in the long run, this not a huge problem or something that defines them or their gymnastics career.

Coaches need to understand that regardless of what the gymnast was doing before that they have regressed in the progression. This regression is real and must be dealt with from the point of the regression. Any comments that don’t recognize this reality are likely to have a negative influence on solving the problem.

The best attitude a coach can assume in dealing with fear is to be as supportive and positive and take whatever opportunities for positive reinforcement that arise. Of course, this is the attitude they should be assuming all the time but it is more critical in this situation.

Another technique that should be used in this situation and all the time is to build confidence by building on successes and reinforcing any positive actions. Girls are already often susceptible to having a lack of confidence in their abilities and progress best when their successes are recognized and reinforced.

Positive reinforcement from coaches and teammates can help rebuild the loss of confidence and help the gymnast avoid continuing down a negative spiral of bad feelings.

Okay, that is not everything we know about this.  That takes a whole book and program to cover but these are things you can do yourself.

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