Your athlete spends many hours a week training in the gym, pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into the sport they love. Maybe they’re the kind of kid who always hits routines in practice. They work hard, take corrections, and put in their best effort day after day in the gym. Then meet day rolls around and all of their training, all of that preparation, suddenly collides with nerves. They go into competition feeling tense, terrified of failing—afraid that they will disappoint themselves, their parents, and their coaches. As a parent, it can be hard to understand how your gymnast can perform amazing skills at practice that most people couldn’t dream of doing, but struggle with the fear of failing in competition. But, like any other skill, mental toughness can be learned, practiced, and strengthened. With the right tools your child can learn to tame his or her fears and compete with confidence.
Drop The Expectation For Perfection
Help your child recognize that each competition is not a final exam, it’s just a place to demonstrate where their skills are right now. Of course, your gymnast wants to do well in competition, but doing well may mean something different with each meet. Take the focus off of scores and placements and instead help them to focus on making small improvements—straight arms in her kip or pointed toes during his pommel horse routine.
“I tell parents and gymnasts that competition is an opportunity to show where you are today. Then you get feedback on where you are, and you go from there. We move on from that place taking the information we’ve gotten and moving forward in the season,” says Stacey Goodrich, Mental Strength Coach and owner of So Connected Mental Strength Training.
Help Them Find Their Own Strategy
Visualizing routines before a competition is a strategy many coaches recommend, and it works very well for some gymnasts. However, not all kids are visual learners. Some are auditory and do best saying or thinking certain key words during their routines, some kids are kinetic and do well if they image feeling their way through the routine, while some need to think their way through their routine. Sometimes their strategy may change from one event to the next—a visual strategy may work for beam, while a kinetic strategy works better for bars. The key is figuring out what works ahead of time and practicing that strategy while preparing for competition.
Give Your Mind A Job To Do
Is your gymnast focused on what his or her coach will think of her performance? Afraid you will be disappointed if they don’t hit a certain score? If so, these thoughts are controlling their minds as they compete.
“Gymnasts’ bodies know what to do, but if you don’t give your mind a job to do it will give itself a job,” says Goodrich.
Unfortunately, that job may be obsessing over everything that could go wrong.
“Whatever their expectation is becomes the thing that is controlling them,” says Goodrich. “The symptom may be the fear of not being perfect, and the result is a disconnect between their mind and body.”
Instead of allowing themselves to be paralyzed by thoughts of failing, focus on using the strategies that they have determined work best for them—visualizing, thinking, feeling, or talking their way through their routines.
Set A Plan For After The Competition
Goodrich recommends gymnasts have something to look forward to after the meet, whether it’s getting ice cream, going shopping, watching a movie, or enjoying time with friends. Giving your athlete something to look forward to after the meet can help take some of the pressure off and remind them that they are more than just a gymnast.
“Gymnasts sometimes see competition as all or nothing. Having something to look forward to after the meet reminds them that life goes on after this,” Goodrich says.
Focus On One Thing At A Time
Sometimes just walking into the meet can feel overwhelming to your gymnast. They have been practicing for months but once the competition arrives and they see the other teams, the judges, and the equipment it can trigger major nerves for some gymnasts. To counteract the nerves, remind your child to focus on one thing at a time. There’s no need to worry about beam while you are starting off on bars. Take each event as it comes and focus on each skill in the routine. Once that skill is completed, they can focus on moving to the next skill.
Move On From Mistakes
Your gymnast started off on beam and had a fall right away, or his high bar routine scored much lower than he expected. Bummer. It happens to every competitor, but once it’s over it’s over. Remind your gymnast to leave whatever disappointment they may feel behind on that last event. Each event offers a fresh opportunity to demonstrate their skills, and at a competition there is no benefit in dwelling on past mistakes.
Don’t Be Afraid To Seek Help
Gymnastics is a tough sport and as parents we don’t always know exactly what to say to our kids to help them through their fears. A quick web search will turn up plenty of books, videos, and podcasts that may help your gymnast develop the tools that work best for them. Some gymnasts find they do best with one-on-one sports psychology coaching sessions to help them identify the best strategies to stay mentally strong both at meets and while managing fears around learning new skills. A sports psychologist may be able to recognize thinking patterns that have been holding your gymnast back and offer solutions tailored to your child’s needs.
With each meet and each new level of competition your gymnast will continue to find themselves challenged by the sport, but with the right mental mindset they can learn to leave their fears behind, walk into meets with confidence, and most importantly, enjoy competing in the sport they love.
Jen Kula is a Massachusetts based writer, and mom to two gymnasts. She has published one novel, has worked for several magazines and websites including; MetroSports Boston magazine, Appalachian Mountain Club Outdoors Magazine, and Babyzone.com, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.