HELP! My gymnast is afraid of going backward

I’m SO familiar with this one.

This was my biggest problem as a gymnast, and ultimately what led me to quit the sport.

It happened with my back walkover on the beam, with my back tumbling on the floor, and then when I started training a back hand spring on the beam, it got really bad.

It literally felt like there was a brick wall behind me that prevented me from going. I thought I would go for it, but when I started going back I would jerk forward. Every time I balked, it got worse. I started a cycle of bailing out of skills. Then the fear got worse, I bailed out more often, etc.

Now I help kids with this all the time. It’s my favorite thing to work on. It takes a little detective work because often the “problem” has nothing to do with the “problem.”

For example:

I worked with a 12-year-old level 7 who started having trouble with her back handspring on the beam. We’ll call her Kyra. She started getting scared on the high beam and would only go for it on the low beam. Then she got scared on the low beam and could only do it with mats stacked up on both sides. Then she didn’t even want to try it with mats.

What was happening?

Her coach had tried everything and was sick of dealing with this issue.

She was frustrated, her coaches were frustrated and her parents didn’t know what to do about it. So, they came to me.

Here are the 5 steps we took to get her through the fear:

1. Determine the downside

Something I like to investigate is the cost vs. benefit of getting the skill back. There’s always a reason to stay scared or a downside to getting un-scared (or it would work itself out). Sometimes the fear helps to keep the pressure off, keep expectations low, avoid injury, or even something completely unrelated to gymnastics.

This was Kyra’s first year in middle school. This year her friends had started congregating at Starbucks after school. She couldn’t ever go with them because she had practice. She was starting to feel left out and resenting gymnastics for it.

Subconsciously, she was sabotaging her skill because she wanted to spend more time with her friends. After a couple of sessions, we were able to shed some light on this.

2. Discuss options

We talked openly about what her choices were. What’s the priority? Social life? Sport? Is there a way to have the two coexist? I always let the client lead this portion of the discussion. I’m completely neutral. My job is to help her get over the fear—if she wants to.

Through discussion, she realized that her window for gymnastics success was closing. It had been her long-term dream to compete in college. She decided that she would make a special effort to spend time with friends on her days off, but recommit to her training.

3. Create a plan

Now that she was committed, we built what I call a “confidence ladder.” This consists of Kyra deciding what each step would be toward her getting her skill back. Starting with what she can confidently do now (on the low beam with mats and a coach standing by), and climbing slowly up to doing the skill on a high beam with no extra mats.

She constructs the plan with my help. My role is to ask clarifying questions that determine if she’s pushing too hard or trying to get there too quickly. The most important concept here is to always be moving forward. This requires a slow progression, building confidence through small wins, without bailing. There is a small leap of faith at each level, but not one that will send her back into the downward spiral toward giving up.

4. Communicate the plan

Once the confidence ladder is filled out, it’s time to present it to the coaches. This is an important step because the coaches may have something entirely different planned. This takes some empowerment, especially for younger gymnasts. It’s time to go to the coach for an open conversation and make some humble requests.

Some coaches are “old school.” This is something we can’t control, so we have to work with it the best we can. If coaches refuse to spot skills (which is the norm in some gyms), the plan has to account for that. If coaches don’t allow enough time to work through the necessary progressions, the plan has to account for that as well.

Once everyone is on the same page, it’s time to get to work.

5. Execute the plan

This involves not only physical execution of the confidence ladder, but mental work as well.

I often involve imagery (aka visualization) at this stage. It’s pretty magical what proper use of this mental skill can do to speed up the process of breaking through fear. I also work with kids around their thinking patterns and self-talk. Depending on the kid, I sometimes choreograph the thinking to match the necessary actions. We decide how to bounce back from mistakes or failure quickly, and check in all along the way.

6. Reflect

Each time a new rung of the confidence ladder is achieved, we celebrate. We also look back at what worked, what didn’t work, and what was learned. This helps to clarify the necessary mindset that the gymnast will carry with them from here forward.

If there is still a lot of stress and resistance, we look at all the possible contributors. We revise the ladder where necessary, and address the thinking that is leading to the stress.

No matter how long it takes, if a child is committed, and the parent and coach are on board, this is a process that builds strong, confident, resilient gymnasts. Those gymnasts grow up to be strong, confident, resilient adults.

After just a few sessions, Kyra started to see some huge progress. Her coaches saw that her plan was starting to work. Within a couple months, she was doing her back handspring on the high beam confidently. She had a strong level 7 season, and took home quite a few balance beam medals. She has a method to overcome any fear that crops up. And now, a few years later, she’s well on her way toward her dream of competing in college.

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