22
Apr
15

Stress in the gym: Stop. Breathe. Look again. do one more.

 I just got out of school. I have a paper due tomorrow that I didn’t start. Exams start next week. Our first meet is in 2 weeks. I haven’t stuck a dismount since Tuesday. The rest of the team is going out for pizza and I have to go home and watch my little brother. Now the coach wants to see a full routine but I haven’t really warmed up yet. ARGHHH!

We all get stressed. It’s normal.

There is definitely a negative physical response. We understand it but at times being stressed can be beneficial. Personally I used to do specific things to make myself stressed out when I was in competition. It made me feel “edged” and the raised heart rate and queasy stomach were things I embraced and defined them, not as stress or as anxiety, but as excitement. I was like a race horse, nose against the gate, ready to run. But I was taught to control the level of stress I was feeling.

We are all experiencing stress. The issue is that without control, it staircases to such elevated levels that we have actual negative and long lasting reactions. In the opening paragraph the gymnast might have 10 stress units over the paper that’s due, (I made this up for illustration sake), 5 units over the start of exams, 5 over the upcoming meet, 10 over low quality practices, 5 over no social outlet, 10 over her little brother’s care. Those 45 units are multiplied by the 20 units of the coach asking for a routine RIGHT NOW and she ends up with 900 units!! The result may be a breakdown, crying,  or a frustrated tantrum, or adding in an additional multiplier by doing the routine poorly and reinforcing the previous stress.

As coaches we need to first stop the staircase climb of stress by explaining that the only thing that can be affected right now is the current request. We have to shock the system by backing down the demands and allow an immediate release of the pressure.  Possibly give them an early release to get the paper done, or something to help them see that solutions are available.  We determine with each athlete the amount of push, pull, or release needed to get to an optimal performance.  We learn those levels by trial and error.

But without controlling the stress level the gymnast will not be practicing optimally and runs an increased risk of injury. None of that is worth pushing through the elevated stress feelings that a gymnast is having.

To the contrary side, there are times when stress is a valuable tool. At Gymfinity we have simulated stressful scenes to help an athlete prepare for that moment when they will be performing. For example, if you have a gymnast that is nervous about performing in front of a crowd, you may want to have an audience come watch a practice meet, or have a time in practice when everyone stops and watches a routine. Eventually through this type of controlled exposure they are desensitized to the stress that a performance could trigger.

In any respect, a performance sport like gymnastics, can be very stressful to a child. Again, as coaches we have got to take steps to teach children how to accept the feelings and eventually control them.  If we don’t, we will not only lose the kid, we will make the sport unappealing to others. Part of the fun of gymnastics is the feeling of being stressed, a little. It affords us the opportunity to show kids that if you embrace stress you can control it, and even make it work for you.

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