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Gymnastics Articles

Breaking Down The Block! (Athletes)
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.

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.

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.

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.

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".

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.

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.

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.