"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."
Caroline


Gymnastics Articles

The No Fear Revolution: A New Way of Looking at An Old Beast.
By Alison Arnold Ph.D.

It's your biggest nightmare. One day you can do the skill, the next day you can't. Or, you do it perfectly with spot, in the pit, or onto mats. But when you attempt to do it by themselves, all you get is BALKING!

Fear. You hate it. It can be paralyzing. It can make even the most patient coach and gymnast want to check him or herself into the psych ward. This article will help you look at fear in a totally new way. A way so different, so revolutionary, you may just want to write me a thank you note. So.

You work all day in the gym on body positions. You do drill after drill to be sure that your body is in perfect alignment. Your coaches talk at length to you about the importance of keeping a tight body. You know full well that gymnastics without alignment is like trying to thread a piece of spaghetti through the eye of a needle. Not easy and not very effective.

But what about the mind? The mind is a thought factory, creating thought after thought after thought. A mind out of control is the same as a body out of control; all over the place, and mostly in places where it doesn't belong. Loose mind creates fear, frustration, doubt, and negativity. The opposite is also true. Tight mind creates fearlessness, positivity, confidence, and focus. So it's simple, just as you work on how to tighten your body through correction and drills, do the same with your mind. Teach youirself how to tighten your mind through mental corrections and drills. Change the way you think about fear by simply seeing it as loose mind.

You correct loose body all the time. You would never let yourself go for more than one turn with bent knees or a loose core. So why is it different for the mind? Begin to correct loose mind just as you would any body position. Correct it non-emotionally. Whenever you feel fear, frustration or over-thinking, simply draw your attention to loose mind with a simple comment. Say something to yourself like, "my mind seems loose, what am I thinking?", or "I see fear is creeping in, just focus on the correction over and over." Teach yourself to identify loose mind whenever you feel it. Without awareness, making a correction is virtually impossible. Teach yourself to listen to what you are saying in your head. Then, "lock it down" by either saying cue words, corrections, or positive self statements.

Remember, when the mind is loose, negative thoughts have a free for all. They take any opportunity to sneak in and create fear. So how can you keep your mind tight? How can you "lock it down"? The following is a list of drills you can do to help anchor your mind. "Anchoring" keeps the mind tight, in proper alignment, so that negative thoughts cannot enter leading to fear and doubt.

The mind is simply another part of the body. In sport, you spend countless hours training your body for proper position, alignment, and technique. The mind must also remain in proper alignment in order to achieve success. One of the most important skills for any gymnast is the ability to pull one's mind back into proper position when it goes off course. Mental choreography is the blinders for the mind. It keeps the mind tight and provides a resting place when it goes off course. We know that the biggest cause of poor performance is out of control thinking. Keeping the monkey-mind occupied and "out of trouble" is key. Using mental choreography enables the mind to stay focused, centered, and on track.

Mental Choreography words are verbal cues words used to keep the mind tight during performance. These words are used before, during, and after performance, not only during difficult areas of routines, but presentation areas as well. When these words are done during every routine, or skill, your words serve as a resting place for your mind. This is the secret gift of mental choreography. Once it become second nature and automatic, it will carry you through routines during the difficult or trying times. The words will allow the mind to become "non-thinking", thus in the zone. The zone is ultimate "tight mind".

There are three types of MC thoughts to utilize as mental cues when you're afraid:

  • Technical Statements: Statements or corrections ("lift", "tight", "shoulders square")
  • Energy Statements: Statements that bring energy up or down ("go!", "push here!", and "relax" "breathe")
  • Confidence Statements: Statements that encourage and build trust (i.e. "I can do it", "I've done it before")

Focus on these cue words to lock down your mind and keep it tight.

Anchor phrases are any phrase or series of actions that help tighten your mind. The mind must be anchored strong and steady in order to stay on course in the turbulence 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.

An anchor is a series of thoughts or actions that will pull your mind back to perfect mental position. An anchor is a series of strong "come-backs" to those negative thoughts keeping you in fear and doubt. Anchors help you 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. The anchor should break the downward spiral of frustration, fear, or nervousness, and get your mind back on course. Whenever you notice loose mind, pull it back by telling yourself to "go get a drink, and use my anchor", or "do some drills and use your mental anchor", or simply, "anchor my mind".

For most athletes, fear is simply a deficit in confidence. Look at your mind as a confidence bank. When positive deposits go up, the mind feels an abundance of confidence. When you're in a deficit in the confidence account, the mind feels fear and worry. Have a wealth of confidence by building up your accounts. An account is built by success. Even successful drills can make your bank overflow. See fear as a lack of confidence. Even if you have done the skill hundreds of times, if you are fearful, then you are lacking in confidence. Remember, fear isn't always rational. As you as you see fearful behavior, especially balking, help create success by going back to the last successful drill. Build up the bank again, before pushing yourself to do the skill. It's important to note, that the mind seems to focus on failures more than successes. A gymnast can successfully perform a skill over and over again, just to have all of that shattered by a scary stop in the middle of it. Don't forget about your successes. They are just as important as times when you are having difficulty.

What you say to yourself is extremely important. Maybe even more important than what others say to you! Are you creating an atmosphere in your head of fear, or one of confidence? What we put energy into grows bigger. Putting energy into fear, even overcoming it, fuels the fear beast. Use language with yourself that changes the way you view fear.. The following are some phrases to use in order to build confidence and take the focus off of fear.

It's ok, I just need to build up your confidence.
Tight mind, I can see my fear beast coming up.
Go back and do some drills. Let's build up my bank.
Check my thoughts. I am hving loose mind.
Anchor my mind. Focus on the correction and put it on automatic.
Don't think about anything but this correction. Say it over and over again in my head.
Walk through the skill saying my key words.
My monkey mind is getting me into trouble. Focus on this correction.

Remember, look at fear as simply loose mind. It can be corrected, there are drills for it. Correct loose mind quickly and easily before you lose yours!

Alison Arnold Ph.D. is a sport psychology consultant for USA Gymnastics. She spends her time creating mental toughness training programs for athletes and helps coaches from going crazy.