Head Games: Breaking Down the Block!

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There have been some posts regarding mental blocks and thought it would be useful to post this article that I found on a sports psychology website (www.headgames.ws):

It's called:

Getting it, losing it, and getting it back again in gymnastics
by Alison Arnold Ph.D.

It's so frustrating. One minute you can do the skill the next minute you can't. So many gymnasts can do a skill perfectly one day, only to find themselves losing it, or worse yet, not even being able to go for it at all. Take the story of Camille for example:

"One day I was doing my giants perfectly. It had taken me three months to learn it and finally I got it! I was so happy. The next day I came into the gym and would not even throw one! It wasn't like I was scared, it was like I had a block inside my body that said "don't go". My coaches were frustrated, and I was frustrated. I wasn't sure what was going on."

This happens to every gymnast at one time or another. A block so strong it shakes your confidence down to the very core. This article will give you some tools to help you break down the block so that the block doesn't break you down.

Where do Blocks come from?

All fears and blocks come from out of control thinking. The mind controls the body. If you are not feeling confident or are thinking negative thoughts, the body responds with fear and balking. It's strange, but sometimes you are totally unaware this is happening. Many gymnasts say they are not afraid, but continue to balk on skills. If there is balking, there is some kind of fear. It may be a fear about something that has never happened. Or something that might happen. It might be a response to too much pressure. Or not doing enough progressions leading up to the skill. Whatever it is, the key is to change your thinking! What are you thinking as you're training and performing?
We all know how powerful the mind is. Think of the mind like a sailboat on the ocean of life. As the boat sails, thoughts control the weather. Negative thought patterns create storms and blocks in our lives, while positive thought patterns create smooth sailing. The disciplined athlete has as much control of their thoughts as a musician has control of his instrument. It is essential to increase awareness of when your thoughts become out of control. A "tight mind" is one that is focused, effortless, confident, rational, and in control. A "loose mind" is negative, dramatic, irrational, over-thinking, doubtful and out of control. Most blocks come from having a loose mind. Too many times, the mind becomes loose, going off on it's own "field trip" of negativity and doubt. These field trips may lead to losing a skill. Remember, out of control thinking leads to out of control performance.

Battling the Block: 3 Keys to Breakthrough

A gymnast battling the block needs to bring out the entire army. There are three aspects of training that are especially helpful. Only utilizing one or two of these aspects is like fighting a battle with one hand tied behind your back. Two of these training interventions are physical one is mental. It's very common for coaches and athletes to do the physical interventions without addressing the mental part. Since we know that blocks are mostly mental, it's crucial coaches and athletes address the mental side too! The two physical aspects are progressions and repetitions, the mental aspect is tightening the mind.

#1: Progressions

First thing to do when you have a block is go back to the earliest progression you can complete successfully. Whatever that progression is, doing it over and over will help you gain confidence. It may be doing the skill with spot, stacked mats, or into a pit or resi. Keep doing the progression as many times as you can until you feel ready to increase to the next level of difficulty. Have your coach spot less and less or pull out mats one at a time. Keep increasing difficulty until your feel confident doing the skill again.

#2: Repetitions

Along with the progressions, you need to do numbers, numbers, numbers! Keep doing each skill and progression until you can perform them in your sleep or with your eyes closed. Do so many numbers you are actually sick of the skill! Numbers will help you feel more confident which in turn changes your thinking about the skill. You begin to say, "I can do this", rather than "I'm gonna stop".

#3: Tools to Tighten the Mind

Progressions and repetitions can't break the block alone. Dealing with the problem directly will help the block break easier and faster. The best way to break the block cycle is combining progressions, repetitions, and tight mind tools. Here are the three most effective mental tools to break the block.

Mental Choreography

I have written before in USA Gymnastics Magazine about the importance of mental choreography (MC) or "key thoughts". MC more than any other tool helps to tighten the mind. Think of MC as blinders for the mind. MC keeps your mind "locked down" so that distraction or doubt can not interfere with your focus. Create key thoughts that you say to yourself for any skill you feel blocked on. Say those thoughts in your head whenever you do the skill or the progression. That is the most important part. As you do each progression and repetition, be sure to say your mental choreography words. Your key thoughts will help your body complete the skill automatically.


What you think is what you do. Imagining yourself doing the skill over and over again in your mind is one way to break the block cycle. Practice imagining yourself complete the skill while your eyes are open, looking at the apparatus. If you are blocked on Vault, stand at the end of the vault runway and see yourself doing a perfect vault. Be sure to do your mental choreography words every time you imagine yourself doing the skill. This pairs the words you say with completing the skill. In addition to visualizing, walk through the skill you are blocked on. Put your body through each of the body positions required for the skill while saying mental choreography. Feel yourself doing the skill as much as possible. Do each body position from start to finish.


It's important to be aware when your mind is loose and off track. Then, you must have enough determination to pull it back on course. The turbulent thoughts of your mind can pull your sailboat way off track. At times, pulling it into the dangerous whirlpools of the Bermuda Triangle! You mind must be anchored strong and steady to stay on course in the storm of negative thinking. Just as you pull your body back to proper position to make a technical correction, you can pull your mind back the same way by using an anchor.

Your anchor is a series of thoughts or actions that will pull your mind back to focus and doubtlessness. Your anchor will be strong "come-backs" to negative thoughts. Helping your mind return to focus, fearlessness, and doubtlessness. Examples of strong anchors include: "breathe, stay on course, I can do this", "breathe, tight mind, don't go there", or "relax, keep it cool, it's no big deal." Each anchor statement should include breathing and positive self-talk. Your anchor should break the downward spiral of frustration, fear, or nervousness, and get your mind back on course. Whenever you feel a block coming on, use your anchor to move you to a positive place.

Remember to keep it cool.

Breaking the block is something all gymnasts can do. It's important to keep a positive attitude. Stress feeds the Block Beast. The more you tell yourself, "I'm getting over this", "I know I can get this back", "It's getting better every day", the quicker you will break the block. Don't let negative thinking defeat you. Stay positive, stay totally doubtless, knowing you will get the skill back. Sometimes the more pressure you put on yourself the worse the block. Keep it cool. Let go and trust you'll be back on course in no time!

Alison Arnold Ph.D. is a sport psychology consultant for USA Gymnastics. A former gymnast, she views training the mind as important as training the body.
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This post is very interesting. There are two level 8's at my gym who have, literally, not back tumbled for YEARS!! They both have severe mental blocks, primarily with BHS, but started with back tucks. I'll pass this on to our coach-she's tried everything, and has even attended seminars.

In case you're wondering how they're at level 8, here it is: On floor, the one girl does front tuck-front tuck, FHS-front pike, and FHS-front tuck. The other does FHS-front tuck, FHS-front pike, and RO-arabian. On beam they both do cartwheel-ro.
This gives me new hope for my DD!!!

This post is very interesting. There are two level 8's at my gym who have, literally, not back tumbled for YEARS!! They both have severe mental blocks, primarily with BHS, but started with back tucks. I'll pass this on to our coach-she's tried everything, and has even attended seminars.

In case you're wondering how they're at level 8, here it is: On floor, the one girl does front tuck-front tuck, FHS-front pike, and FHS-front tuck. The other does FHS-front tuck, FHS-front pike, and RO-arabian. On beam they both do cartwheel-ro.

Thanks gracefulone!!! My dd is 9yrs old and has serious blocks with her BHS. It started last year when she was at a cheer gym. I think they pushed her too much and wanted her to learn multiple handsprings and back tucks too early. She had some falls and it freaked her out.

She is getting better now that she is in a gymnastics gym and the pace is slower. She can FRONT tumble ANYTHING. Her tumble coach at cheer was so excited last year because he was giving her a break from the back tumbling and taught her an arabian in like 5 minutes! She already has her front handspring and front tuck so he put together a tumbling pass for her that was Level 5 in cheer with NO BACK TUMBLING (she was only a Level 2 at the time!) He was so excited for her because she is so talented and natural at the front tumbling.

This gives me some hope for my dd. I still want her to be able to conquer this fear of going backwards, but since front tumbling is more technical and actually harder, then it is kind of a blessing that she is so natural at it.

I will definitely be asking for your advice when she gets older and is on the higher level teams for front tumbling skills that she can do!!
Sure. We've seen it all in our gym, so we all know the ways around the bhs block! lol

Best of luck to your dd. I'm glad she found her forte! Every gymnast has one...or a few.

Oh, and my personal story. I wish I would have had this a few months ago, when I fell on my head at pole vault practice, 2 days before conference. Maybe then it wouldn't have taken my coach threatening to scratch me from both conference and regionals to make me go over another bar. But I guess it worked...
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My DD and one of her teammmates were afraid of backtumbling too.Right before level 7 season.Ahhhh.DD grogressed really fast until then.Coaches took them back to the basics and had them stand in front of a mirrow and say "I can do this".DD also has a lot of power on floor so they had her do it from just from a power hurdle.She competed Level 7 and even did her layout just from a power hurdle.She felt comfortable again with backtumbling and started doing fulls and 1 1/2's.Well right before Level 8 season she "lost" her twisting.Back to basics again and she competed her full.Now she is training for Level 9 and is working on doublebacks,does them into the pit with a mat and lands them most of the time.Works on bhs 1 1/2 punch front.Made 1 or 2 so far.
Great post! I have a story of my own to tell. Lexi is now learning her bwo on beam. She could whip it so fast on low beam without any hesitation. Once she gets to the high beam, she stands there and tries to go back but dosen't. Her coaches say to never do that because when she will really go for it, she will stop and crash. We are still working on her. Leah on the other hand is so fearless. She practically learned her bwo in 2-3 weeks. She now has her bwo bwo and starting bhs.
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This post is very interesting. There are two level 8's at my gym who have, literally, not back tumbled for YEARS!! They both have severe mental blocks, primarily with BHS, but started with back tucks. I'll pass this on to our coach-she's tried everything, and has even attended seminars.

I had this same mental block! BHSs were always scary, but a few weeks after I started learning RO-BHS I freaked out and refused to tumble. I completely quit doing floor (was in a rec program/high school so I didn't need it to move up levels like you do in USAG). At the time I sort of knew what I needed from myself and my coaches to get over the fear, but it wasn't something they were going to do for me. So I just didn't even try.

I took eight years off and went back a couple years ago at age 24. I wanted to get that RO-BHS and now that I was in charge of my "training" I could do what I needed to get the skill. I can now do a connected cartwheel-BHS on tumble track by myself - a major, major step in the right direction for me and the hardest "tumbling" I've ever done.

You're probabaly all wondering what it was that I needed. I had identified the speed of the skill as the part that freaked me out. And that going into a BHS from a RO is a slightly different entry than a standing BHS which scared me because it felt like a new skill. I also knew with such a long-term fear that I would need tons of reps at each step of the way. Even if I was physically capable of moving on to the next step, that did not mean I was mentally ready. I did not rush anything. My friends spotted many, many standing BHS on tumble track. Then I moved to cartwheel-BHS because it kills some of the speed and the BHS entry is more like a standing BHS than a RO-entry. Then I did BHS down the hill with a spot. Yada, yada.

So when I have a kid with a fear, I try to get them to identify what exactly it is about the skill they are scared of and work drill after drill after drill to get them used to that part. I try not to rush anything. Communication is key. I want the kid to know I'm going to help them get through this without rushing the process, and I want her to tell me how she's feeling about things.

Note that I only do this for a major mental blocks. The small fears that pop up when trying a new skill or crashing on an old skill can be dealt with differently.
What helped my DD was when she finally mastered the bhs bhs on lowbeam, went on to medium beam and then they put a big block under the highbeam when she fist did it there.
What helped my DD was when she finally mastered the bhs bhs on lowbeam, went on to medium beam and then they put a big block under the highbeam when she fist did it there.

Thanks! I'll suggest that to her coaches and see if it works!:)
You're Welcome!

I just wanted to say thank you for posting this article. I am going to try what it says and see how it helps me :)

A lot of gymnastics and tumbling is so mental and often that aspect of the sport is not addressed. Mental toughness and training is so important.
While I think it's great that there is help out there for kids who have "mental blocks", I would say that nine times out of ten, "mental problems" pop up when gymnasts are trying to do skills which they are not ready for and haven't been prepared for.

Inconsitency in coaching and weak basics usually catch up to a gymnast with the manifestation of a "block", which is just the mind's natural survival mechanism kicking in when the numbers and confidence was never really there in the first place. Mental training isn't separate training: it's part of the sport.

And, as for Alison Arnold...while she is a good motivational speaker...she is also the "Dr Ali" from that lame Scott Baio show on VH-1.

She sort of stepped away from the gymnastics world and tried to create this alter-ego which is sort of wierd. I'm not sure what to make of it.:confused:

At one point, an email was sent around, supposedly from her, asking coaches and gymnasts to watch her on the show and vote for her for some contest. There is no way I would ever suggest a kid watch that show.
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We are just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with my dd's mental block. Her culprit - twisting!

She competed level 7 this past fall/winter (NJ here) and she was able to do a full around November, but they didn't really work it. And then with States coming in Jan. they stopped working upgrades to focus on States. After States, her group started to get ready for level 8. She had lost her full. It wasn't pretty. Not only did she lose her full, but she was having problems with RO-BHS-LO and RO-BHS-BT. Twisting wasn't even being mentioned and when dd tried to do one of the 2 previous mentioned passes, she would get lost in the air and do an arabian type thing and it was scaring the crap out of her. She was downgraded to doing power hurdle RO-BHS-LO or BT. She could have no speed or she would do the arabian thing.

All the while she was doing simple twisting drills and she was doing them great, but she couldn't put it all together.

Well in June coaches stopped back tumbling with her completely - nothing and just focused on front tumbling. She has a beautiful FHS-FLO-FT, which she needs for L8. Well, she got her front full - so the child could twist, but only to the front and not the back. Again, still only front tumbling.

Well just about 2 weeks ago, dd came to me from the backyard and said, I just did a half (back) - of course I freaked and said please do not do that at home and save it for the gym. The key thing she said to me, "Mom, I'm not afraid to do the half anymore." This was all unsolicitated. I personally think that the confidence that she got from the front full, trickled over and gave her the confidence to go for the back half. She went to gym the next day (on a Monday), got on the trampoline and did a half for her coaches, she also went on to do a full on the trampoline. Coaches kept her to the air mat and tumble trak for back twisting - in case her psycho twisting started again. Yesterday when I went to pick her up from gym, her floor coach told me she can do her half on the floor. Of course I don't get to see her over the summer because her schedule conflicts with my work schedule, but boy I can't wait until September when I will get to see her again.

Her mental block lasted about 6 months! It was very trying at times. Dd was very down on herself and her confidence was rock bottom. This coming off of her winning AA at States for Level 7 - she should have been through the ceiling and she was beating herself up for a back full.

The funny thing was that she was excelling on every other event, but all she could focus on was the full. She has her level 8 bars routine, she has her BHS-BHS series on beam, LO dismount, she can do a BT on beam too and she is working BHS-BT. She is on track with her Yurchenko for vault and was told that she is going to flip her Yurchenko this week. BUT, none of this mattered because she was only focused on the back full.

I knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel, but I believed in her more than she believed in herself for many months. I don't know what it was, but I am guess it was the front full that helped her turn the corner.

Confidence, never under-estimate the power of your own mind!

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