"I like that Doc Ali teaches the kids that fears are normal and healthy. I feel that her goal is to teach them how to manage their fear. She does that by comparing the mind to a muscle. Tight mind = tight muscles. Loose mind = loose muscles. Athletes work hard to strengthen their muscles and they need to work equally as hard to strengthen their minds."
Gymnastics ArticlesBeating the Fear Beast (Coaches)
By Alison Arnold Ph.D.
In the last segment of this series, I wrote about how Mental Choreography can help your gymnasts deal with fear and balking. This article will help you teach them how to work with negative thoughts that lead to negative outcomes in the gym. Think about teaching a new skill. What happens when you learn and train loose body position? The skill is inconsistent, right? It is performed poorly and extremely hard to learn. It is the same with the mind. When the mind is "loose" negative thoughts "sneak" in causing fear and balking. Mental Choreography is one way to tighten up the mind, keeping it focused on what needs to happen instead of what the gymnast is afraid MAY happen. Remember, out of control thinking leads to out of control performance. This article explains a technique designed to help gymnasts become more mentally focused and tough. It is another exercise in addition to Mental Choreography that will help your athletes overcome fear. It's called, The "Two-Minute Turn-Around".
We know that thoughts create feelings and actions. Positive thinking creates positive actions, and negative thinking creates negative actions. The Two-Minute Turn-Around helps the gymnast practice changing negative thinking as if they were changing a channel on TV. This takes some practice, so it is very important they are patient with themselves and committed to practice. Being able to change negative thinking to positive is like a muscle. It needs to be worked and conditioned to gain strength. Doing a push-up one time does not make an athlete strong. It is the same with mental exercises, they need to be practiced so "mental muscles" are strengthened and conditioned too.
Identifying the Beast and Beast thoughts
The Beast is the voice inside an athlete's head that beats them up. It is their out of control, negative thinking that in turn, leads to frustration in the gym. The Beast is merciless and most of the time leaves an athlete discouraged and depressed. It is not a helpful evaluator or motivator. This is the main difference between the Beast and other parts of the athlete's mind that help with motivation and evaluating performance. The Beast is critical of the athlete and beats them up while other types of self-talk help with motivation. A thought like, "I know I can do better" is motivating, while "Everyone was watching and you blew it like usual" is self-defeating. That is the Beast and Beast thoughts. As I mentioned above, the Beast is fueled by unrealistic expectations, self-doubt, and fear. It can also echo things they are afraid someone might say, making their greatest fears come true! Some negative messages are impossible to attain for example, "I need to be perfect all the time". Most negative thinking occurs when the athlete is focused on events that happened in the past or may happen in the future. That is why helping them be in the present is so important. Teaching them about breathing and mental choreography is one way to keep their minds present. The past (what happened) and the future (what may happen) is the perfect haven for Beast-like thinking. It's important to be aware of messages your athletes are telling themselves that stem from the negative self-talk. It is important to teach your athletes that negative thinking is normal and something every person deals with. Learning how to beat beast thoughts and think positive is a life long process.
The part of your athlete that can change negative thinking is something I call the Vision. The Vision is the ideal picture of the gymnast your athletes want to be. The Vision has all the positive qualities that he or she admires in other gymnasts and people they respect in their life. The Vision is every positive thought your athletes can think of. When they are in their Vision, they are in their ideal performance state. This ideal state has been called "the zone", or "in the flow" by athletes and sport psychologists. It is feeling totally confident, aggressive, graceful, relaxed, and fearless. This is their Vision. When any person is firmly grounded in their Vision, nothing can throw them off. Not even negative thoughts. Helping an athlete identify a strong vision can interrupt the negative thought cycle. Filling the mind with success oriented thinking and leaving no space for negative thought processes.
This is an exercise that will help your athletes tighten up their thinking and change negative thoughts to positive thoughts. It is important to have them practice this exercise in and out of the gym. When they (are you) are frustrated, during the car ride to gym, and bed time are all good times to visualize the Two-minute Turn-around. The next section of this article will give you instructions on how to teach this skill to your athlete. To start, have each athlete get a piece of paper. Have them fold the paper in half with two columns. Label one column "Beast thoughts" and the other column "Vision thoughts". Under the Beast thought column instruct them to write every negative thought that comes into their head when they are feeling afraid and negative. Tell them not leave anything out. These thoughts might be negative statements they tell themselves ("youíll never get this, you may as well give up", or "I canít do it"), or feelings ("I feel a brick wall and just canít break through it."). After they write down all their beast statements, instruct them to write their comebacks to the beast under the Vision column. Be sure they have more Vision statements then Beast statements. Their Vision needs to be strong and powerful. Some examples of strong Vision statements are, "I can do it, donít listen to him", "I can turn this bad day around", "Breathe, visualize my routine", and "I know I can do it-I've heard this Beast 1,000 timesÖIím going to ignore it".
After they have written their Beast and Vision thoughts, walk them through practicing the Two-Minute Turn-Around. To practice the Two-Minute Turn-Around, use the code S, B, V, Go!! , S, B, V, Go!! is a very powerful tool. Here's what it stands for:
S stands for STOP! Tell your athletes that the minute they notice any Beast thought the first thing they do is say to themselves STOP!!
B stands for BREATHE . Remember, breathing gets them into the present. Not stuck in past or future fear thoughts. After they say "Stop!" inside their head, the next thing they do is take a deep breath.
V stands for Vision . After they Breathe, ask them to change their beast thoughts to either Vision thoughts or neutral, motivating, thoughts.
Go!!! Will help them energize yourself and get motivated so they can Beat the Beast!
Have them close their eyes and think of their Beast thoughtsÖtell them to let the Beast beat them up. Let them be here for a few minutes. Instruct them to imagine themselves having a bad day. Be sure they imagine themselves balking, feeling frustrated, crying, or whatever typically happens on their worst day. Tell them to let their Beast thoughts get the best of them. After a few minutes, ask them to imagine themselves getting off of the event, going to get a drink (or stepping to the side of the event) and saying "Stop!" to themselves following deep breath. On the exhale, instruct them to flood themselves with Vision thoughts, changing their thinking from negative, to strong, powerful, positive thoughts. Use all the thoughts of their Vision. Have them flood their mind with Vision thoughts. As they do this, instruct them to visualize seeing their day turn around, using frustration as fuel and motivation to do better. Be sure to have them Flood with positive thoughts two times, taking a deep breath each time.
After they have practiced the two-minute turn-around twice, ask your athletes how many of them were able to turn-around their negative thinking to positive thinking. You will find that most of them were able to turn-around their bad day and that it became easier every time they practiced it. It's important to reinforce that this is a skill that takes practice!
Practicing the Two-Minute Turn-Around will help your athletes block out negative thinking in both the gym and life. Continue to reinforce this exercise by noticing when negative thinking comes up in the gym ("I think I see some Beast thoughts"), having them get a drink and do the Two-minute turn-around, or using group pressure and enthusiasm to "Beat the Beast!" Remember, taking some time to teach your athletes mental discipline will save you from dealing with hours of fear and frustration later.
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.