Mental & Emotional Gymnastics Training

Subject: Mental & Emotional Training

Sex: female
Age: My daughter is 8
Gymnastics Level: 5


Hi! We really need some help! Our 8 year old daughter is a level 5 USAG gymnast. We are at a gym we love and the coaches are wonderful. She completed level 4 last year so she has some experience in front of judges. She will start competing level 5 in September. She is doing extremely well and even has the majority of her level 6 skills already. She has her press to handstand and pike to handstand as well as some other TOPS skills. Our gym thinks she will be able to compete optionals a year from now (although we have not told her this).

Our big problem just started 6 weeks ago. Mentally/emotionally she has become shaky; crying quite a bit at practice. We don’t know what to do. The coaches are at a loss as to how to help. We all have tried everything. She has set some really high goals for herself and is putting alot of pressure on herself to be perfect. My husband and I are constantly telling her that this is supposed to be fun and to enjoy it…to give herself a break. She seems to focus on the negatives (I can’t fix this or that) and not on how strong and beautiful she is and how quickly she has picked up all the skills. I’ve even asked her if she’d like to try a different sport and that made her even more upset. She thinks I’m going to take gymnastics away from her which is not the case. I just want her happy.

If you have any advice/experience in this type of situation, I would greatly appreciate it! Thank you!

I do have some experience in this area, with a degree in psychology and as a sport hypnotist. Ethics demands that I disclose that I am not a licensed psychologist or counselor and nothing I say should be interpreted to be medical advice or therapy of any kind. Answering a potentially complicated psychological question like this from a distance would be a stretch for anyone, in the same way that giving coaching advice to a gymnast one has never seen before can be a stretch. OK, standard disclosure out of the way.

One of the first things I noticed about your email was that you said that the big problem started 6 weeks ago. I am sure that it has not escaped your attention, that there likely was something that changed or a triggering event for this situation, that either happened or was re-triggered 6 weeks ago. So the first step, is to see if either you, your daughter or your coaches can think of any change in her life that occurred around the same time – 6 weeks ago. The change need not be related in any way to gymnastics, for example, if there were some change in her life that had to do with the end of school. Sometimes the initial triggering event is obvious and directly related to gymnastics, like a bad fall. Other times, the initial triggering event could be seemingly unrelated.

I am sure you have asked your daughter a number of times what the problem is and she probably says she doesn’t know. Still, you might want to explore what happened in her life six weeks ago, get her to talk about it and look for any signs of discomfort about anything she speak about. Still, there is a very good chance that you will not discover any initial triggering event. Because sometimes, the real initial triggering event could be buried in the past and be as simple as a single negative comment, that has now assumed too great an importance and was re-triggered by a new event, that no one would suspect as having that much power. The problem with what we are trying to do here is that we are trying to deal with problem, that likely lies deep enough within the subconscious, that normal conversation with her conscious mind is not going to unearth.

The other possibility is that this type of negative anxiety is a part of her developing personality, and that you are just seeing this aspect of it now. Perfectionist personalities (you mentioned she is putting a lot of pressure on herself to be perfect) tend to be so self-critical they tend to discount praise and take too deeply to heart external criticism that was not intended to be taken so deeply.

The problem with perfectionists is that they can never live up to their own expectations for themselves. Human beings, including young gymnasts, are not perfect. Over time as perfectionists continue to fail (not achieving their goals and expectations), they tend to react with anxiety and/or other negative emotions, like fear or depression. When this continues over a period of years, they can develop a personality of anxiety, where they are just in varying degrees of an anxious state, and are literally, just waiting for the next thing to trigger more anxiety.

Time out for the good news. Perfectionists also tend to be highly intelligent, successful (including successful in gymnastics) and they tend to develop their own coping mechanisms for dealing with their perfectionist tendencies. She seems to have good coaching and an early talent for the sport and speeding through the compulsory levels and participating in the TOPs program are all good coaching signs. If you were willing to let her out of the sport, it is not at all likely that she is feeling pressure from you.

Now, with all of that, I have not yet given you any answers or help. Please keep in mind, often the fastest and easiest solution, to problems in the subconscious, is dealing with those in a manner and with something that is designed and well-suited, to make quick changes in the subconscious, which for me, personally, might eventually be hypnosis. That said, good hypnotists, who will understand the problems of young gymnasts, may or may not be available to you, and you or she may or may not want to avail yourself of that route.

So what can she do, what can you do, and what can her coaches do to help in this situation.

It would be helpful for her to be able to:

As parents, you can help by

  • Finding legitimate things to praise in her gymnastics progress
  • Put together video of her when she first started gymnastics so she can see how far she has come
  • Help her learn how to relax, how to control her moods and how to control her self-talk
  • Assist her in goal-setting, writing down those goals and reviewing her progress and successes regularly
  • Communicate with her coaches what you and she are doing to deal with the situation

Coaches may or may not be open to suggestions as to how they coach. Regardless, here are my suggestions for coaches with gymnasts in this situation.

  • Carefully plan practices so gymnasts have steps of progress they can achieve every day. However small the steps of progress need to be to achieve that, daily success is one of the main cures for anxiety in gymnasts.
  • Use as much positive coaching as you can.
  • As much as possible, praise what she is doing correctly and build upon that.
  • In anxious, perfectionist gymnasts, there is usually little need for you to criticize. They are already criticizing themselves far more harshly than you are likely to.
  • Spend your coaching time with them, informing of what specifically they can do to improve.

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