Overcoming Fear of Injury in Gymnastics

Sports Parent:

My 17-year-old daughter is a high-level competitive gymnast who recently accepts a scholarship to a NCAA division 1 university. She is a very talented level 10 gymnast, but has been stifled this season due to overwhelming fear.

Here is an example: She has this tendency to predict a negative outcome half way through her Yurchenko vault routine and she hasn’t even been able to execute one to completion. She simply assumes she can’t make (the final layout) and fears embarrassing herself in front of others. For several months, she has been exhibiting this same approach to vault. She seems to play all the “what ifs” in her head now on each apparatus. The coaches get frustrated and say she is not working to her potential. I know this and my daughter knows it as well. Do you have any suggestions to help her deal with her fear?

Coach John’s response:

The fear of embarrassment or maybe other fears (fear of falling during the layout) cause her to doubt her ability.  It’s easier to predict a negative outcome rather than risk an actual negative outcome. She might be thinking, “If I don’t try it then I won’t fail in front of others.” What she might not realize is that she is failing anyway because she is not at least attempting the skill. It’s better to attempt and fail, than not to attempt at all.  At least if she attempts she has a 50% chance of succeeding.

This first step is to dig in a little with her and try to ascertain the real fear. Then you need to discuss this with her. It may be fear of injury, fear of embarrassment, fear of letting others down, or fear of falling.  It may possibly be a combination of all these fears. Obviously, the fear of falling/injury is a real and valid fear for her and causes her to not focus on the proper cues and probably perform tentatively or not perform at all.

I suggest that you first identify the fear. Then work on enhancing her confidence, trust, and focus. She needs to gain back confidence in her skills by cutting off the doubts. You do this by helping her identify the doubts and then helping to reframe the doubts. She also needs to improve her trust on the vault by letting go and focusing on the correct “cues.” By cues, I mean the performance cues that help her successful execute a solid routine. Lastly, she needs to learn to focus on execution in the moment (not the future) and the feeling that helps her perform instead of the negative results and what ifs.

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