Inside Gymnastics Perspective: The Mental Side of the Mat

Inside Gymnastics Perspective: The Mental Side of the Mat

Inside Gymnastics Perspective: The Mental Side of the Mat

By Gina Pongetti, MPT- Physical Therapist, for Inside Gymnastics 

Gymnasts spend upwards of 30 hours in a gym per week training. Equipment-based, skill-focused training. Six days a week. Oftentimes workouts are twice a day, and the occasional week where there are two days in a row off, albeit scarce and rare. 

Most athletes here in Fort Worth are also balancing an intense academic schedule – whether high school or college. NCAA student-athletes have to work in their collegiate season — though uplifting and rewarding — can equally bring stress. Training less intensely leaves the window open for lost skills and the climb that will have to happen when the intensity returns. 

Don’t forget recovery. Not just sleep, but actual modalities. Ice tanks, saunas, compression boots, hyperbaric chambers. Then attending physical therapy, massage and more. No time left? We haven’t even discussed mental wellness, balance, and spiritual health. Balancing the stress of being at the top of the athletic world – in a sport where perfection isn’t attainable but yet still sought after – it has to take a toll on everyone. 

Regular proactive visits to a sport psychologist, mental health coach, and counselor have become a fifth rotation for many athletes. The process allows them to openly discuss balancing pressure, stress, expectations, and meet season demands while staying ahead of anticipated issues. 

As the culture continues to shift, mental health in athletics is at the front and center of decision-making by athletic directors, gym owners and organization presidents more now than it ever was before. On the gymnastics front, athletes are now given more autonomy about how they would like to spend their time and energy when it comes to media availability, rehabilitation, extra podium training sessions and more. 

It doesn’t matter how technically sound your routines are, or the level of your D score. If you can’t make it through training, through the week, and two to four rounds of competition within 10 days beyond the months, and between the quads, none of it matters. 

The National Governing Body (NGB) which is USA Gymnastics – governed by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Center (USOPC) – have made drastic, well-needed and well-received changes in the aggressiveness of hiring, staffing, training and availability of multiple levels of professional mental health offerings. This includes everything from full emergency assessments by trained psychologists and psychiatrists to therapy dogs (such as Beacon!) roaming the halls, rooms and competition venue. 

Taking care of staff, coaches and supporting staff? That’s a focus, too, and is a welcome addition. Want a massage? At the Core Hydration Classic, massages were offered to help the athletes relax their nerves and prepare their mind. Need to pet a dog and smile? Lower your cortisol levels? Got that, too. Multiple studies have shown the benefit of decreasing this stress hormone while laos oxytocin-another chemical that reduces stress. Bringing a smile to your face isn’t a bad thing either. All from our furry friends. 

We asked USA Gymnastics President and CEO Li Li Leung her thoughts on the comprehensive program and culture that is being created and constantly assessed. 

“USA Gymnastics has implemented multiple new wellness resources over the past several years,” she said. “Some of which include an emotional support dog program, increased presence of sport psychology providers at camps and events, funding for visits with mental health providers for both athletes and coaches, mindfulness sessions at premier events as well as nutritional resources, to name just a few.”  

This is a large shift from previous Olympic cycles where holding emotion in and not addressing it was the norm. Frustrations were stifled. Nerves were hidden. Leung’s mission has been to turn this around — a definite culture shift. “Caring for the athletes and those who support them are a main priority for the organization.”

Having support structure in place during events, travel, training and available as needed for the athletes is crucial.

That’s actually also been a focus from USOPC’s side to have mental health providers on site. We lean on OPC’s resources as well as our own, both in the lead up to [Classic] and Paris as well,” Leung expanded.

Athletes themselves are also more open to not only sessions for mental health but also being candid about it to their peers and the organization. Especially when the longevity in gymnastics is extending beyond 18 years of competing from childhood through college, but often even one to two cycles past that. Inevitably, peaks and valleys will come over decades in a sport. Balancing sports and life, school and work, is imperative and anticipating stressors and having an outlet for them before there is a build up has helped so many. 

Unfortunately, it often takes an incident or event to convince an athlete that it indeed is finally time. 

In 2020, when the Olympics were postponed, it meant that there was a decision to make by the FIG about age eligibility. Would it remain those already 2020 age-qualified or shift to allow the next year younger a chance? The decision was the latter, and Skye Blakely – then just 16 – had her chance. During Day 1 of Olympic Trials, she tore her UCL on a warm-up vault Yurchenko-style entry, slamming into the table and walking away, holding her left arm by her side knowing that life had changed instantly. 

“I’d honestly say after I got hurt at Trials, it was really hard for me. I feel like I went down for a minute with my mental health and how I feel and how I handle things,” Blakely said. “But after speaking with a mental coach and just working through everything, I started building back up. Just being able to, sometimes just talking it out and processing my feelings, what I’ve been through and what I’m going to go through. I feel like that’s helped my brain to better understand and deal with certain situations that I’ve been through. And that is honestly what helps me the most.”

Blakely’s Mom approached her, suggesting it would be a good idea. And finally, she let in.

“It was my parents. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I’d say, honestly, I shut down after that [first] meeting. As a 16-year-old, going to your biggest meet at the time of your life, and you not just hurt yourself a little bit, but it was a big injury, and it was traumatic, and I had to have surgery. So that was a big shift in my world.”

Returning from injury creates its own challenges in mental health and often add to the already perfection-based system of judged sports. Working with a mental health coach for Blakely allowed her to open up and go through the feelings, not just past them. A scary process for most elite athletes who are used to routine. 

“For a while, it was hard for me to understand, and it just really hurt my feelings and my heart,” she said. “And that was a low point for me. So I feel like having a mental coach really brought that, helped me get back to where I want to be again.”

Now that she’s fully bounced back, she is absolutely in the mix for a spot in Paris. Once a setback became motivation to push forward with renewed spirit. In Fort Worth, she placed second, her most solid and consistent outing to date.

“I think it’s changed my mindset. I’m not focused on, ‘Oh, I can get hurt today.’ That’s definitely not where my mind is. It’s just like, just stay in the moment and do your job every day. Try to find the fun.”

Injuries and mental struggles change someone, undoubtedly so. Quite often athletes know their bodies better after progressing through arduous rehab and needing to find mountains of intrinsic motivation. It requires a self-respect and intimate knowledge of what one’s own body can handle. And respecting that in training decisions without feeling pressed, guilty for being honest and understanding quality over quantity. 

“I’d say if it’s not competition week, I’m more open to pushing myself even harder. But when it comes to competition week,” Blakely said. “I’m a little bit more like, ‘Okay, I feel like I’ve done what I need to do to be ready today.’  Sometimes I’ll communicate back to the coach, ‘I feel good, I feel ready. I don’t need to do anything else.’”

Paving the way for athletes like Blakely to have an open mindset to seek mental care are many former Olympians such as Simone Biles and Sam Mikulak who, in a time of transition, pushed for change. 

Mikulak, three-time Olympian and six-time national All-Around Champion, opened up about his mental health and focus. In 2021, USA Gymnastics created a panel, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month where Mikulak explained his challenge of being too hard on himself, and not enjoying the process of what he did, simply striving for the perfect outcome noting he often would ask himself, “Why are you doing this? Is it for the right reasons, or for the wrong reasons?”

Mikulak wished that he had gone down the road with support as he looked back. USA Gymnastics has always had sports psychologists to work with, dating back years when the athlete wellness group had a glossary of sorts of medical professionals from around the country. Reaching out to them, or knowing when to use their services, however, was still up to the athlete, their coach and family. He said he realized he needed to focus on his mental health when the Games were postponed, and since gymnastics demands perfection, has had to work hard to appreciate the imperfections in life.

Mikulak explained while on the panel, “I never wanted to be seen as a gymnast that was weak, or had issues. And that’s what I always thought people that got therapy, that was the reason you went, because you had some major issues, something huge.”

Mikulak went on to state, “What I have been honestly doing for my whole life was just holding in all of the things that I always worried about, pushing it deep down inside… and so I was continually just lying to myself… even though I would have this stream of thoughts that would come into my head. There’s these fears, there’s these worries. For so long, I was not tackling them. I would just ignore them… I would think (about the sport): ‘Why are you doing this? Is it for the right reasons, or for the wrong reasons?’”

Success – whether medals, consistency, difficulty level – comes when all parts of the athlete are balanced. From sleep habits to nutrition, confidence to controlled anxiety, the emotional side of our bodies is connected to the physical side. Without quality sleep, there is less quality recovery. With heightened stress hormones, such as cortisol, the body sits in a constant state of muscle breakdown. This is in direct opposition to the point of training, which is to build or at least maintain muscles through workouts. 

Overtraining can lead to fatigue and a subsequent lack in performance-quality and increased injury risk. When athletes are not honest about their exhaustion, depression, or lack of energy because of the fear of being told to “toughen up,” this can affect thyroid levels, metabolism, aerobic capacity and reaction time. All of these lead the athlete to continue to push through even more, often thinking that training harder is the answer due to a subpar performance. Rest, relaxation, time off and others may assist in physical health. Addressing the psychological aspect of being “okay” with needing a break, and allowing one’s body to heal without guilt, can help to control the physical side effects. 

Even when addressing injuries, physical therapists and physicians need to be mindful of the athlete’s entire state of being. Tissue healing times have been shown to decrease with proper metabolic balance. The level of pH, or acidity, in the body can be mitigated and therefore present a better environment for recovery. From swelling to ligament injury, joint stiffness to tight muscles, healing chances are always improved with a healthier system.

2020 Olympic All-Around champion Sunisa Lee was so proud to be able to pop back on to National Team for the first time since 2021 after so many struggles with her health. The pressure to return after a successful Olympic run is volume enough, let alone battling kidney health issues that in contrast with her mind going full throttle, stopped her in her tracks hard and often. How she handled finally being ready for this two-day first step toward Olympic qualification requires knowing one’s self and when and how to self-soothe, especially in the middle of competition.

“I think the main thing for me was telling myself to breathe because I can tell when I get worked up — when your heart… What’s the word? Fluttering, yeah… It’s just beating so fast,” she said  after the competition in Fort Worth. “That’s the thing that’s helped me the most, is just feeling my hand on my stomach and feeling my breath.”

The athlete that most recently put mental health on the map was the now nine-time U.S. All-Around champion Simone Biles. Destigmatizing listening to one’s body and having it be acceptable has had tsunami-sized ripple effect for athletes of all levels and ages throughout the world. She is open about her struggles and most importantly, is staying on top of the inherent pressures of an Olympic year.

“Just making sure I’m healthy mentally and physically,” Biles responded when asked about increased expectations as her fame continues to rise. “I think at this point, mentally is just as important as I physically feel. So just making sure I go to my therapy sessions weekly.”

Gymnasts are not machines, although to the lay public, their amazing feats seem to only be accomplished because of being superhuman. Let’s remember that as many dreams will be achieved this weekend when qualification to the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Olympic Trials is on the line.  An equal amount of hearts will be left empty, wondering what could have been. They are still superb athletes at the top of their game just being here. And that should be celebrated as well. 

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