Today’s Topic: Feeling the Pressure and Calming Our Nerves
Hi, everyone. This is Coach Diana, and I’m going to do a Q&A session today on really all about the fear of falling or the fear of failing. I had a parent of a level V gymnast recently ask me a question about her little girl who was struggling with the balance beam. Not uncommon. This was her question:
Q: My daughter had a meet recently, and during warmups she had a pretty big fall. She was doing a back handspring, and she slipped the beam.
Mom thought, oh, dear. Wonder what’s going to happen. Then she goes to competition and she actually does a beautiful routine. Mom thought great, no worries there. Well then, she goes to practice, and she’s inconsistent with the back handspring, so the coaches think all right, I think we’re going to take the back handspring out for right now and do a back walkover. A skill that she had been doing for longer. More comfortable, more confident. And kind of the same thing happened. She was more consistent in the back handspring, but not making every single one. That was fine.
Then she goes to competition, and the next two meets, she falls on her back walkover. And not only does she fall, but she doesn’t even get a foot on. She totally misses, and she gets back up and she does a beautiful back walkover. And Mom’s like, “Okay, what is going on?” And she asks her daughter, “Do you feel anxious about balance beam or about the back walkover?” And the daughter’s like, “Uh-huh, no. I’m not anxious at all.” Mom asked me what’s going on and what can I do to help her?
Pressure and Nerves
I think a couple things are going on. One was, it’s a competition. In competition, the pressure is always higher, which probably means that the fear is also higher. And also I think, while the daughter is saying that she’s not anxious, she might just not understand what the mom is asking about in terms of anxiety. I actually worked with the little girl on round one, and I asked it a little bit differently. I said, “Does anything in gymnastics make you nervous?” She said, “Yeah, balance beam.”
She knew right away that it did make her nervous. I just don’t think she could make the connection. Just using some different verbiage might be helpful. As soon as I could get her to recognize that she was nervous, then it was pretty easy to address it.
I think part of what happens is we tend to let our brain get in the way when we’re scared of something or we’re nervous about it, and we overthink it. She’s thinking so much about her back walkover and not falling and the internal dialogue a lot of times is, “Please don’t let me fall. Please don’t fall. Please don’t fall.” When our focus is on not falling, we actually increase the likelihood of falling, unfortunately.
Change Your Focus
The key and challenge is for the athletes to really change their focus, even when they’re nervous, and instead of focusing on not falling, focusing on all the things that we know to do to actually make the skill. That will, in and of itself, it will help you be more successful with the skill.
Another thing that I asked the little girl was when she gets nervous, where does she feel it? And for balance beam, anyway, she felt it in her hands. They would get really sweaty and she just felt like she was constantly trying to wipe her hands off and nothing was happening, and she was just thinking about her back walkover.
We tried to give her nervousness some characteristics. She gave it color. We gave it an object. It ended up being a yellow blob. In her next competition, when she was standing there waiting for the judge, I wanted her to go ahead and wipe the yellow blobs off of her hands. By giving them characteristics, she was actually able to get rid of it. She was getting rid of something versus constantly having her hands feel sweaty. That helped.
Then obviously you want to take one skill at a time. That’s really easy unless your mind is overworking and thinking constantly about that skill you’re nervous about. If you can refocus and think about each skill as it comes, and know that you’re going to go into it knowing what to do to make the back walkover on the first try.
We did some mental preparation with that, as well, but the whole idea was around refocusing where her attention was going because, of course, whatever we’re thinking about directs our behavior. She was actually able to do that very successfully and had a great state meet. It was all about just a little bit of changing her focus. That was great.
I think this was an example with a gymnast, but this is also something that I have seen quite a bit with other athletes. I see it a lot. I’ve seen it with baseball players when they get up to bat and all of sudden they’re like, “Please don’t strike out, please don’t strike out, please don’t strike out.” And what happens? They strike out. Or basketball players, when they’re getting ready to shoot a free throw and they don’t want to miss, that’s all they’re thinking.
Felling the Pressure
It’s a lot when everybody’s eyes are on you as an athlete. That’s when the pressure goes even higher and sometimes the stakes of the game are higher. Sometimes it’s because somebody’s in the audience that may not normally be in the audience, whether it’s a parent or a significant other or a teacher or maybe even a scout. That raises the pressure.
Immediately we go to thinking, “Please don’t mess up, please don’t mess up. I just don’t want to fail at this.” Instead of thinking or focusing on all the things we know to make it a good at bat or a good skill on the balance beam, we forget all about that and just focus on not messing up.
I think that that’s the challenge that everybody has when we are a little bit nervous about a skill. While this was about a gymnast, I think it translates into so many other sports, and it is something that I see a lot. But athletes are just a little bit scared, and that is all part of it. It’s figuring out what to do to actually overcome that. I think that one of the biggest things is we just have to change our focus.
Okay, that’s all for today. If you guys have questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below or you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will be more than happy to answer them. All right, thanks so much.