Despite the current pandemic situation, another competition season has finally come but with it, inevitably, also some stressful situations. I’m sure each of us has experienced some sort of competition nerves, some more, some less. Personally, I used to be a wreck weeks before a competition and could not cope at all. Then, in my coaching career I’ve seen many kids like me and did not want to see them struggle so I’ve researched, talked to sports professionals and former gymnasts, tried it all and at the end, I’ve put together all the data and created a complex pre-comp plan that you can now use as well. There are techniques you can use either yourself as a gymnast or as a coach to help your girls because as we all know, mental readiness should not be disregarded as a secondary problem since it actually has a bigger influence on athletes’ performance than physical preparedness(1). However, one cannot exist without the other, that’s why it goes like this…
- Be 100% prepared
This is probably the most crucial one because even if your coach believes in you but you feel subconsciously that you’re not ready to compete, it’s just not going to work. To be confident in your routine, you need to work hard - to the point where you can do the whole routine perfectly without music interruption. With practicing individual skills, the rule of thumb goes “if you can do it 8 out of 10 times, you can do it.” I couldn’t find the study but it’s been presented to us at a national seminar in 2014 stating that based on the evidence, if gymnasts could do a skill 8 times out of 10, in most cases, they should be able to perform a skill without a mistake at a competition. I’ve tried it on my girls since then and it has proven to be a really good indicator of their preparedness. This number served as an imaginary limit of their technical skills which helped in case they weren’t able to perform everything perfectly for 10 out of 10. Nonetheless, that only shows how important putting all your effort into training really is. On the other hand, however, if through everything you don’t feel like competing just yet, you should always be able to tell your coach honestly how you’re feeling and rather work on your skills some more or postpone the start of the season for you. It’s not about being weak but about knowing your situation and doing what’s best for you at the particular time. Don’t go just to ‘get experience” because it can do more harm than good and ultimately decrease your confidence in your skills and preparedness in the future.
I’ve personally experienced this myself but also as a coach when I was told all the girls from my group should compete unless they don’t remember the routines because they need to get used to competing. Boy, was it wrong! I let everyone compete thinking it will toughen them up but instead, one girl forgot a part of her routine because she wasn’t confident in it and had to deal with feeling unprepared ever since. We’ve tried to work with a sports psychologist, increased the number of competitions per season to make her numb towards competition pressure but it has never been the same. On the contrary, I know girls from a specific club who don’t compete until they’re at a certain level and when they get to go for the first time, their confidence only grows, and that’s because besides their personal satisfaction with the routines, they either place well or somewhere in the middle but never end up even remotely close to last. Think about what that does to their self-image as a gymnast. It’s not wrong to wait so if your gymnast doesn’t feel ready, don’t force her to compete; you’ll be doing your future self a big favor.
- Train like you're at a competition
This is a pretty common practice that my coach used when I was competing myself and one of those things I’ve carried with me to my coaching as well. It’s basically replicating all the factors present at competitions as much as you possibly can. First of all, 1-2 weeks before a competition, we let our gymnasts perform the whole routine without stopping the music. It can actually be really difficult sometimes for us coaches as we want them to do perfectly and we tend to stop the music too often so they can repeat the messed up skill and fix it, but what it actually does is rob them of a chance to react properly as if they were on an actual meet. They need to practice to „save“ the skills, especially throws and catches in advance to improve their reflexes and reaction time in oder to act properly and quickly if it occurs during a competition (which is also why they should know the deductions to be able to recognize what is more convenient in that particular situation).
Another way of making them feel like they’re competing is performing in their competition leotards and creating an audience made up by the other girls in the gym or even their parents. These changes alone will be enough to change the environment into something intimidating which is exactly what we need them to get used to. On that note, while you don’t have to focus on the music and corrections, now you can take a piece of paper and judge, assuming most of us are judges anyway, and after the routine you’ll immediately assess the performance and give advice for the next routine. You can also record the routine and send it to the gymnast after practice, however, depending on an individual, this can exacerbate the anxiety about an upcoming competition so only do so if you know your gymnast can handle it and use it to her advantage.
- Focus on what you CAN control
Or, in other words, have a routine. When I was competing, I used to have this list in my notebook where I wrote everything to pack for a competition. After a few meets I’ve added some, in my opinion, „essentials“ so every time I was packing for a meet, I knew if I scratched everything from that list, I wouldn’t forget anything important. This little hack helped me relieve the anxiety and trust me, I’ve had A LOT of it. If you’re not this type of person, it may not be a big deal to you and you’ll have to find ways that help you specifically, however, creating some kind of routine you’ll follow every time before a meet will create a habit in your brain which can help you tremendously over time. Knowing that a lot of gymnasts don’t think this way, what I do is make sure that we don’t end up in an unnecessarily stressful situation by taking over. At the last training session before a meet I get the girls to come around me and I ask them: “What can’t you forget? It’s 6 things“ and wait for them to recite it to me. Specifically, it’s 6 things you absolutely have to BRING yourself because you pretty much can’t borrow them from anybody else. It’s what you’ll be wearing on the carpet: leotard, competition underwear, toe shoes; then what you’ll hold – your apparatus, your music to perform to, and the entry fee (nowadays, the last 2 are taken care of beforehand via Internet but it’s always good to have a backup). It works as a mnemonic tool and it gives you a kind of structure and a sense of security that nothing can really go wrong.
Other than not forgetting things, you can focus on the way you warm up which I personally believe should be exactly the same you’re used to because 1-you know it works and 2-it’ll make you feel like it’s just a training - nothing new, nothing scary, just a regular warm-up. The longer you can keep yourself in a non-competition mode, the better – naturally, I’m talking about the techniques that work on the overly anxious kids. On the other side of the spectrum you have kids who can get so excited to perform, they won’t be able to focus; however, that’s not at all as common. Little gymnasts tend to be either very excited or super-intimidated when they enter a competition hall so I always remind them not to „notice“ anybody but themselves and only think about their routine and the particular skill they’re doing RIGHT NOW. Then, I try to do the same for them - I don’t do small talk with other coaches (and I’m sure some of them think I don’t like them because of it but the performance of my gymnasts is more important at that time and can be influenced by everything I do as well). The idea is to block everything around you because really, it isn’t important whether the gymnast before you did a great routine and got a lot of points - and it will certainly not help you to know that.
Lastly, don’t compare yourself to others. You can’t do anything about the way they’ll perform but you certainly CAN influence your own performance – so don’t look at what amazing skills someone does at a training hall, don’t freak out if you drop your apparatus and concentrate on each movement fully. Others may screw up even if they did well on the training carpet and you may do great even if you’re messing up now. Similarly, don’t ask your coach to tell you their score or your score for a previous routine. In most cases, no matter the score, it will only create more anxiety – because you either have no chance and feel like a loser; or you feel like you can win and won’t be entirely in the present moment. This is just an anecdotal evidence but every time I told my gymnasts their score, they screwed up the next event so I’d suggest to keep the scores to yourself, you’ll have plenty of time to analyze them after the competition.
- Reframe nervousness into excitement
Think about what happens to your body physically when you’re stressed or anxious – your heart beat goes up, you‘re shaking, you may have stomach cramps, and you basically want it to be over. Now think about how you feel when you’re excited – isn’t it surprisingly similar? It is because what we feel is anticipation, our body is getting ready for something unknown so it releases adrenaline and cortisol. The way we perceive it though is a mind game (2). Your body’s repsonse will always be the same no matter the reason but you have the power to change the meaning of it. The next time you’re anxious, not just before a competition, maybe before a presentation at school, try to think about it as something you’re really good at and ready to steal the spotlight and you can’t wait to do it. Hopefully, it will surprise you how a small change in your mindset can make the whole experience positive – just like that, in a flick of a finger.
- Calming exercises (breathing, imagery, flow)
On the contrary to the previous paragraph, rhythmic gymnastics is a kind of sport where you need to perform very controlled movements with both your body and your apparatus. That’s why you can’t let yourself get „too excited“ whether it has a positive or a negative connotation because this aroused state prevents you from being able to focus fully. You don’t want your hand shaking when throwing a precise „risk“ with multiple rotations underneath it. Therefore techniques like imagery and breathing exercises come into play here. The most talked about method is getting „into the zone“ or a state of „flow“ that describes a mental state of absolute clarity and concentration on the task, being in the present moment and not letting any external factors penetrate this hypothetical bubble around you. Some lucky gymnasts can do it themselves just because they are focused on their success and wanting to win. Most of them, however, won’t be able to do that and will need help to learn how to reach that state and keep it.
One very widely used technique to create this state of flow when needed is imagery which is usually used before an event but has been proven more effective as a long-term strategy. In one of the best sports science books I’ve read by David Epstein „The sports gene“ he touches this topic with a story about Michael Phelps, a world record holder and an Olympian in swimming who, reportedly, used to imagine his races laying in bed before falling asleep, as he was told by his coach. He would imagine everything from coming to the steps, putting on his goggles, and breathing out heavily through the whole race until he touched the end of the pool winning the tournament; and everything was the most vivid and in detail as he could possibly imagine it. He would do this every night and what it did was make him calmer about the race because he already „knew“ how it would go. It has also given him this almost „fake“ confidence that, in the end, translated into a better performance (3). You’ve probably heard about the study where the scientists hooked up athletes to a monitoring device and observed that even when imagining a race, their muscles contracted in the same pattern as they would in real life; so in a way, by doing imagery regularly, you’re actually training not only your mind but also body to react in a certain way so when you come to a competition, you’re kind of switching to autopilot.
Once at a competition floor though, it is too late to do imagery exercises and you need something quick and easy to calm your nerves and focus. Now’s the time for good old breathing exercises. The classic technique is to breath in as slowly as possible, hold it for about 4 seconds, and then release, again, as slowly as possible. What it does is 2 things – physiologically, it slows down your heartbeat and moves more oxygen into your organs and muscles, making it easier to control them; and psychologically, it forces you to concentrate on just one thing at a time, therefore, calms you down. For me personally, breathing exercises never really worked (bear in mind that I was probably dealing with more than just a regular pre-comp anxiety), however, I needed to find something else that would take my mind off the upcoming performance. That’s why I’ve been looking for something specific gymnasts do I could try out for myself and later my gymnasts and a few years ago I’ve seen an interview with Margarita Mamun, an Olympic gold medalist from Rio 2016, who shared a very interesting idea: A few performances before hers she‘d put a watch or a phone with a timer on the floor in front of her, set it to 1 and a half minute (the length of 1 routine), and just stare at the screen as the little pointer moved in a steady pace (4). Reportedly, this method helped her become more focused before it was her turn to come up on the carpet, and I can see why. Although in most cases it seems like a reasonable practice, I can imagine some of my gymnasts getting even more anxious thinking their time is getting closer and closer so be aware of that possibility. Alternatively, you can use „a lucky charm“ – usually a thread bracelet that’s allowed as long as it’s covered by your leotard and doesn’t pose a risk to your health – and clutch it or kiss your apparatus just to create some internal reasurrence that „luck“ is on your side and you’re ready. These little things I’ve seen practiced by even older gymnasts and even though they don’t have to necessarily make any scientific sense, they help on a psychological level that’s sometimes even more important.
- If ineffective, seek a mental health professional's help
Although all of these techniques are heavily researched and used widely by most athletes, there are some of us who just can’t get themsleves to calm down even if everything seems to be going right. I was one of those kids – I used to struggle every time I competed, I would get stressed out weeks before a competition and my routines would get progressively worse as the dreaded date was approaching. My coach would get frustrated which shrunk my confidence even more. I had a stomach ache at every meet and most of the time I fought the urge to cry – and don’t get me wrong, there were times when I actually did a good job and placed well, usually when I was very well prepared (duh) but those moments were more of the exception than the rule. Then, when I started coaching, I had to deal with all kinds of kids and a whole variety of extreme emotions that came along with it. I tried all of these techniques and for the most part they worked. There was on kid though who, no matter what the level of preparedness and whatever reassurence I gave her, she was never feeling confident enough to just go and get it. It was very difficult for her to communicate what she was afraid of or why she didn’t believe in herself despite all the evidence to the contrary. Years came by and we still haven’t reached the competition level she was clearly capable of. With her parents we decided it was time to find out what held her back internally and started working with a psychologist. As much as I would like to say she’s reached her potential and become the best athlete she could be, it wouldn’t be completely true. The problem is, if there is some kind of a childhood trauma, even seemingly insignificant and unnoticable in your day-to-day life, it can and probabaly will affect your performance; and even if you work through it and get over your insecurities in real life, in sports it doesn’t just diminish. It seems like you’re exposed when you perform because in „our world“ the only thing that matters is your performance and if it isn’t perfect, it can feel like you’re a failure. Harsh, I know, but too many kid athletes feel this way and we as coaches don’t give these emotions enough attention. If we do nothing, however, the kid will not only struggle in the sport but it will affect them in the future, so what I really wanna say is, be empathetic and if you see they don’t feel like they’re good enough, don’t let it slide like it’s just a temporary struggle because most often than not it isn’t..
- Europeangymnastics, 2020. REPLAY: Webinar trampoline. Mental health and mental preparation for competition. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3k8uc3A0G-w&ab_channel=europeangymnastics). Retrieved Novemebr 7, 2020.
- The Irish Times, 2017. ‘Anxious‘ or ‘excited‘? How to find your stress sweet spot? (https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/health-family/anxious-or-excited-how-to-find-your-stress-sweet-spot-1.3190627). Retrieved June 17, 2021.
- David Epstein, 2014. The Sports Gene. (https://www.pantarhei.sk/knihy/hobby-volny-cas/sport/sport-ostatne/the-sports-gene.html). Retrieved February 23, 2019.
- RG DETAILS, 2017. Margarita Mamun for the Russian Morning Show / English subs / Маргарита Мамун для утреннего шоу. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvttprL66Xo&ab_channel=RGDETAILS). Retrieved June 25, 2017.