As coaches and parents, we all want our young gymnasts to excel at competition.
But if we’re not careful about what we say or how we act around our young gymnasts come competition season, we may hinder their performance instead.
Here are 4 simple strategies to help young gymnasts overcome nerves, feel confident and perform their best at competition:
1. Make Bouncing Back A Habit
At competition, you only get one attempt at your routine. And that attempt lasts just one minute.
It doesn’t matter how many perfect routines you’ve done in practice. If you mess up in competition, you can’t fix it.
Can you imagine the pressure?
No wonder young gymnasts fear mistakes. Fearing mistakes may:
- Make them nervous,
- Cause them to ‘play it safe’ by reducing the amplitude or power of their movement so as not to fall,
- Cause them to lose focus after a mistake, which can derail the rest of the routine.
The tragedy is that any of the above can end up costing the gymnast more points than a mistake itself!
So how can we teach our gymnasts not to fear mistakes? By making bouncing back a habit.
I tell my gymnasts that if they make a mistake during competition, they should move on, focus on the next skill and keep fighting. This is easy enough to understand. But understanding doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to do it when it counts. So, we have to practice. Before the competition, we have many mock competitions so they can practice bouncing back, until they can do it automatically.
While coaches should take the lead on this one, parents can help to soothe pre-competition jitters by reminding young gymnasts that it’s ok to make mistakes, and that bouncing back is an achievement in itself.
2. Focus on Process, Not Outcome
Sometimes, well-meaning parents and coaches tell their gymnasts, “If you work hard, you will do well”. Unfortunately, the reality of competitive sport (and life in general) is that sometimes you work hard, and you still don’t do well.
There could be many reasons for this: other competitors were more experienced, or they were luckier on the day, or the scoring was slightly subjective…the list goes on. The point is, the competition outcome is beyond the gymnast’s control. And trying to control something which is beyond your control is not only stressful — it also doesn’t work.
Instead, get the gymnast to focus on what they can control: effort and attitude. Set process goals like: work hard in training, stay focused in competition, bounce back from mistakes. Have gymnasts focus on what they need to do to be successful, rather than the outcome –success– they want.
When gymnasts focus on what they can control, not only are they more confident, they’re also more likely to achieve the outcome they want.
3. Make Competition Fun
My gymnasts love competition, because they know that after every competition, regardless of outcome, there’ll be a party!
At our party, there’s cake, there’s jelly, but most importantly (to them), there’s 2 hours of PLAYTIME in the gym.
Our young gymnasts are serious athletes, but they’re also kids. Kids work harder, persevere longer, and perform better when they are having fun. (Adults too, for that matter.) We should help them associate competition with fun, joy and laughter, rather than fear and stress.
4. Rack Up Competition Experience
An experienced coach once told me“高水平是比出来的，不是练出来的。” This roughly translates to “Excellence is developed through competition, not (just) training.”
I basically treat the first competition any of my gymnasts do as a write-off. It is strictly for experience, and I tell them as much. If they do well, it’s a bonus. It’s important that parents understand this as well, so they don’t come away from their child’s first competition thinking that they aren’t any good at gymnastics.
The more competition exposure young gymnasts get, the more experienced they will be. They will get used to the competition pressure, get better at bouncing back from mistakes, and learn to rise to the occasion. They will also have more opportunities to observe the best, which will motivate them to work harder.
Every Competition Is An Opportunity
At the end of the day, every competition is an opportunity, no matter the outcome. It is an opportunity either to excel, or to learn. Oftentimes, the learning is more valuable to long-term success. As coaches and parents, we must teach our young gymnasts to make every opportunity count.
Now I’d love to hear from you! If you have any other strategies for helping young athletes succeed, leave a comment below. I read every single one.