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Gymnastics Articles

The Athlete Warrior: 10 Principles for Becoming a Champion Part 1
By Alison Arnold Ph.D.

I'm coming out of the closet. For a while it wasn't ok to say, so I hid it under the guise of simple sport psychology training. But now, the times are a changin' and it's become fashionable to admit what's been true all along. I am a closet Eastern Philosophy junkie. It all started growing up with Kung fu, moving to the Karate Kid and the Dalai Lama. Although I learned a lot in my graduate programs, the truth is, most of my drills, workbooks, and presentations are based on the wisdom from the East. The Eastern philosophers are the masters of the mind, and in gymnastics, controlling the mind is just as important as controlling the body.

Thanks Phil

Phil Jackson let the cat out of the bag with his book "Sacred Hoops". In this book, the former coach of the Chicago Bulls and current coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, shared how much of his Training style and techniques are grounded in Native American and Eastern philosophy. This best seller ignited the curiosity of athletes and coaches all over the United States. People began to ask, "Is there something we can learn from these guys?"

What is the Athlete Warrior?

What is the Athlete Warrior? The Athlete Warrior is someone fully committed to sport and life. Someone willing to face every day and every workout with eyes open, heart open, and ready to push their body to the maximum. It is an athlete ready to do your sport with no regrets. An Athlete Warrior practices fearlessness. Fearlessness in facing adversity, pushing themselves, and being a team leader. The Athlete Warrior does not back away from difficult situations. They are ready to face your sport and life with a big, full hearted... "Come on!"

Setting intention as an athlete is extremely important. Without setting intention, your life wanders around aimlessly without goal or direction. Intention is the motor that starts everything in motion. It is the all-important decision. It is the decision that you are going to be the best athlete you can every time you walk out on the floor. Remember to set specific intention. Think of it like the laser beam for your life. The wider and unfocused your laser is, the less likely you are to hit your target. Laser-like intention helps you create a direct hit on your goals. Remember, the Warrior doesn't settle or make excuses. They make the commitment and decision to be all they can, and do what it takes to make that manifest.

Training tips for Principle One:

  • Set a goal for each training session. Even if it's a small one.
  • Create a list of words describing the athlete you want to be this season. Examples of words include, motivated, determined, confident, fearless, etc.
  • Visualize or repeat verbally the correction you want to implement before the next turn.
  • Review your goals throughout the season.

We know how important belief is. Think of two gymnasts walking out onto the floor for a competition. One believes she is able to hit four for four, the other questions her ability. You can tell the difference in these gymnasts simply by the way they look. One has her head down, looks nervous, and performs with hesitation. The other is confident, aggressive, and relaxed. The only difference is belief. The mind is the creator of all things. Negative thoughts are the destroyers of belief. Become aware of the way you talk to yourself and how that effects your mind and body. Be sure to do the drills, pressure sets, and numbers that are required to build belief. Act with confidence, even in times you don't believe it 100%. The old saying "fake it until you make it" is very applicable here. Sometimes "acting" the part, can create confidence in yourself when you feel doubtful.

Training tips for Principle Two:

  • Notice negative self-talk. Keep a strong hold on what you are saying to yourself.
  • Practice "actor skills". Change your face, body, and energy level to create confidence.
  • Express belief in your teammates. Remember what a powerful figure you are in the lives of your friends.

Awareness is about waking up. It's essential that the Athlete Warrior is aware at all times. Aware, alert and ready for action. No sleepwalking allowed here. The Athlete Warrior knows and understands what's happening both on the outside and the inside of your being. They know who they are, what they stand for, and what they are capable of. When the gymnast is aware, they can respond to all situations with efficiency, grace, speed, and skill. Without awareness, change is virtually impossible. Think about it in terms of a simple correction. If you cannot feel the difference you cannot make the change. The Athlete Warrior is aware of both the body and the mind. They are aware of thoughts, so they are able to change them. They are aware of their body, so they can improve technique. They are aware of how they come across to others, so they can build character.

Training tips for Principle Three:

  • Become more aware of who you are and what you do.
  • Notice your thoughts and feelings.
  • Really feel your body. Notice your body position.

What is that mystical place called "The Zone"? Some say it's magic, some say it's the place of total trust and non-thinking. One thing for certain, being in the Zone is being totally in the Present. One of the most destructive patterns of any gymnast is focusing too much attention in the past or the future. Focusing on the past keeps an gymnast in the land of "what happened". "I can't believe that happened", "Why did that happen to me?", "last time I did that, it was a disaster." The past is over, there is nothing we can do to change it now. Gymnasts who stay in the past over-think and paralyze themselves from getting into the Zone. A gymnast focusing too much in the future, finds yourself stuck in "what if". "What if I make a mistake?", "What if I do the wrong thing?", and "What if I don't win", are all thoughts of the future. No one knows what is going to happen in the future. An gymnast living in the land of "what if" is filled with worry and doubt. They may have a tendency to hold back or be over-cautious in their performance.

The Athlete Warrior trusts the Present. They know that the past is over and the future is theirs to create however they want. They keep their mind focused on each element they are performing only using the past or the future for information and planning. They have heightened awareness, noticing what is going on around them and responding in each moment appropriately. They are accurate in your perceptions, not clouded by the illusions of the past or fears of the future. Without the worries of past or future, the Athlete Warrior performs with effortless confidence.

Training tips for Principle Four:

  • Focus on your breathing. It's the mind/body connector.
  • Notice when you are stuck in past or future thinking.
  • Use drills to pull your mind back to the present.
  • Let go of the past. Don't use words that keep you stuck like "always", and "never".

The mind is a thought factory. Running around like a crazy monkey, it creates thought after thought after thought. Taming the monkey-mind is essential to the Athlete Warrior. Are you a victim of your thoughts? Do you control your thoughts, or is it the other way around? Disciplining the mind is one of the most important lessons in becoming an Athlete Warrior. Disciplining the mind is not an easy task. It takes commitment, patience, and perseverance. Just as you pull your body back into proper alignment, you must work hard in order to pull your mind back into position for success. Many gymnasts allow themselves to become victims of their mind's irrational behavior. The Athlete Warrior is awake, aware, and in control of the stormy waves of the monkey-mind. They are ruthlessly committed to reigning in negative thoughts, thereby, retrieving the mind from an out of control abyss.

Training tips for Principle Five:

  • Learn to differentiate between "tight mind" and "loose mind".
  • Use key words to anchor the mind during routines and skills.
  • Observe your thoughts without getting emotionally caught up in them.
  • Find the lesson in every situation. Find the opportunity in the struggle.

Part two of this article will give you five more training tools in the development of the Athlete Warrior. In order to implement these techniques, set aside a week for each one. Focus on it, practice it. Train your mind to become the champion you are.

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.