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Gymnastics Articles

Get Psyched! Doc Alison's Mental Preparation for Competition Countdown (Athletes)
By Alison Arnold Ph.D.

It's very simple.
You Compete how you Train.
If you train well,
you compete well.
It's not about who's lucky,
It's about who's prepared.


It's that time of year again. Time to tighten up your grips, put that first half with the second half, stick those dismounts, and get ready to shine! It's meet season. This article will give you six basic steps to get your mind ready for competition. Count back six weeks from your first meet, and do one exercise each week. These exercises will help you tighten your mind to perform your best! Ready? Here we go.


Countdown to Competition Week #6: Creating the Vision
To begin this process, it is very important you create the Vision of the gymnast you want to be in competition. This is your goal at the end of the six weeks when you are standing there getting ready to compete. What do you look like? How are you acting in the gym? What do you do on a good day? A bad day? How focused and aggressive are you during workout and competitions? I call this your "Vision" with a capital "V". It is your perfect image of how you want to compete. Here are some examples or words other gymnasts have used to describe their Vision: motivated, strong, a team player, fun, aggressive, fearless, doubtless, positive, a leader, confident, determined, consistent, and happy. We know that the mind is the creator of all things. Everything in the world starts with a vision. Your Vision will help guide you for the next six weeks. Keep this image close to you. Remind yourself of your Vision every day.

Exercise: Creating the Vision
On a piece of paper, write as many words as you can that describe your Ideal Vision for Competition. Hang this poster up in your room or locker to remind yourself of the gymnast you want to be every day!


Countdown to Competition Week #5:
Mental Choreography Uneven Bars, Beam, High Bar, Pommel Horse, and Rings


Countdown to Competition Week #4:
Mental Choreography Floor, Vault, Parallel Bars
The next two weeks are very important. Remember, out of control thinking leads to out of control performance. Mental choreography is your key to confident, consistent routines. When you use cue words throughout your routines, your mind stays focused and tight leaving no room for negative beast thoughts. It is just as important to choreograph thoughts as it is to choreograph a floor or beam routine. Do you go out and compete on floor without your floor routine being choreographed? No. Do you go out and compete beam without a beam routine? No. But most of us have no idea what we should be thinking when we are working out or competing. That's why we do mental choreography. Have you ever watched Amanda Borden before she competes? What does she do? SHE TALKS TO HERSELF! She's doing her mental choreography. Do you think she is saying to herself, "I hope I make this.I hope I don't crash." Nope probably not. What she is doing is visualizing her routines and saying to herself, "Relax, I can do this!". We know that the biggest cause of negative performance or balking is out of control thinking. You need disciplined thoughts increasing consistency, and concentration. Constructing positive mental choreography is one of the first things you can do to create mental toughness.

There are three types of thoughts that you want to use in mental choreography. Here they are:

Mechanical Statements:
Statements reminding you of a physical or mechanical technique (i.e. "lift then twist", "higher arms", and "breathe")

Energy Statements: Statements that evoke an emotional response (i.e. "GO!", "Push here!", and "Relax")

Self-esteem Statements: Statements that encourage self-confidence (i.e. "I can do it", "I've done it before", "This is easy", and "Be the best I can be")

Use these statements to choreograph your routines and individual tricks as well. Exercise: Mental ChoreographyOn a big piece of paper, write out each of your routines. For floor and beam, you can draw your pattern and write the skills you are doing on the pattern line. Then, above the line, write out every thought you want to be thinking during your routine. For uneven bars, parallel bars, high bar, rings, and pommel horse, write a list of your skills and the thoughts you want to be thinking on each skill. For vault, write what you are thinking before you run, during your run, and during your vault. You may not have mental choreography during every skill. But remember, the more your mind is busy, the less you will be distracted. Practice your mental choreography by doing mental "walk throughs" until it comes automatically. You want your mental choreography to happen naturally without thinking. This helps you get into the zone.


Countdown to Competition Week #3:
Mental Rehearsal ScheduleConsistent visualization is an important part of any mental toughness training program. Visualizing yourself doing perfect routines helps build confidence and consistency. The most important by-product of mental rehearsal is the pairing of cue words (Mental Choreography) to perfect performance. Many research studies have shown the connection between visualization and improved performance. Research findings support athletes can experience almost as much improvement through mental rehearsal as they do with physical practice, giving they are in equal physical condition. When you do mental rehearsal, it's important to see yourself with as much detail as possible. Try to use all five senses. See the gym and equipment. Hear the sounds of the competition. Smell the smell of chalk. Taste your mouth being dry or notice sweat on your lips. Feel what it feels like to be at the competition. The closer you can simulate competition in your mind, the more you will be mentally prepared.

A mental rehearsal schedule can be done at any time during the day, although most find it more helpful before they go to bed at night. This is when the body is most relaxed and open to suggestion.

Always be sure you include mental choreography in all mental rehearsal. This links cue words to perfect performance.Exercise: Mental Rehearsal ScheduleWrite each day of the week on a piece of paper and create your mental rehearsal schedule. Include some skills and some routines. Be sure to give yourself at least one night off that can also be for make-up. The night before a competition do one of each event (with all mental choreography) in competition attire. Don't give yourself too many routines. Make your mental rehearsal schedule realistic, if you can only do one before you fall asleep, that's fine!


Countdown to Competition Week #2:
One-Point TrainingThe "One-Point" is my term for a state of mental focus without distraction. It is simply being in the present, without dwelling in past (what happened) or future (what if) thoughts. Just as the perfect body position or shape makes the skill a lot easier, the "tight mind" creates confidence and consistency. Learning to control your mind and pull it back when it gets off track is a skill. Many times it feels like our emotions control us, when in actuality we control our emotions. Learn how to bring your mind back to "one point" first by identifying what your one point feels like. What do your feel like when you are totally doubtless in competition? When you are not thinking about what happened in warm-ups or what could happen if you mess us. Visualize yourself on your one-point. Then, practice bringing yourself back to one-point whenever you lose focus. Bring yourself back with a word and a breath. This is called your "one-point anchor". It is the cue that brings your mind back to focus whenever you feel distracted, frustrated, nervous, or upset. Practice getting back to one-point by visualizing a bad day, and see yourself turn it around in your mind by changing your thinking. Practice turning negative thoughts around workouts. This will train your mind BEFORE your need to use it in competition.

Exercise: The One-PointCreate your one-point anchor. It could be as simple as a breath and a phrase. For example, "Stop, breathe, make it happen" or "Breathe, relax, back to one-point". Practice this in the gym whenever you feel out of your zone.


Countdown to Competition Week #1:

Pre-Competition Rituals and Elite Attitude
Here we are. One week before the meet. It is crucial you are mentally focused just prior to competition. Too many times fear, stress, and pressure, shake up your confidence right before the judge raises his or her hand. Your goal is to get yourself into your Ideal Vision State. That is, you feel confident, focused, excited, and ready to hit your routines. Your pre-competition ritual is what you are saying to yourself and doing beginning two people before you are up. It's important to choreography two people before you compete, one person before you compete, while you are waiting for the judge, and right before your mount, run, or music. Elements in your pre-competition ritual could include, visualization, positive self-talk, breathing, timers, arm sets, dance throughs, and drills. Practice your pre-competition ritual in workout at least one week before the meet.

This is also the week for fine tuning. Elite Attitude is that attention to detail that is needed to perform your best. This week, focus on landings, finishes, facial expression during floor, and acting confident and solid even if you don't feel that way all the time! You know the saying "fake it 'til you make it"? This is the time to project confidence even on your most frustrating day. When you go out on the floor in workout and competition, project an image of confidence, readiness, and doubtlessness!

Exercise: Pre-Competition RitualOn a piece of paper, write out your pre-competition ritual for every event. Be sure to include two people before you compete, one person before you compete, while you are waiting for the judge, and before your mount, run, or music. Practice Elite Attitude all week. Pay special attention to landings, finishes, facial expressions, and how you handle frustration.

These tools will help you feel confident and train your mind in order to compete your best. Remember, the key on competition day is letting go and having fun. On the day of the meet, know you have prepared as much as you can and go into the meet with an air of confidence and excitement. You've worked hard, now is the time to let it shine. Good luck, and most importantly, have fun.

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.