In the gym we train our physical abilities and skills in order to create the perfect routines. Many gymnasts work tirelessly in order to improve their flexibility, strength, co-ordination rhythm, etc... But some don't manage to do all that well in competitions. We sometimes see lack of motivation, anxiety, frustration, low-self confidence and poor problem resolution. These are all mental barriers that stop us from doing our best. Sports psychology is becoming increasingly popular every decade, because people seem to understand more and more how the mind plays a huge role in sports. Incorporating mental training and approaches is important for athlete's optimal performance and their mental health. Imagery and observation are some of the most used psychological techniques in sports because they are easy and effective.
How many gymnasts do great routines during practice and in the moment of truth, during a competition, the nerves get the better of them? If you think this can not be avoided, think again!
We encourage anyone to practice some imagery, mental rehearsal or observation. Coaches and gymnasts can benefit from these. Studies have repeatedly found that imagery can increase attention, motivation, self-efficacy and arousal levels. You don't need to be a licensed sport psychologist to use these during training, but that does not mean we don't need to get informed to do it properly, as if done incorrectly some athletes may fall into negative imagery.
Some gymnasts simply don't do well under pressure. To prevent this from happening imagery is a powerful tool we can use. After all, having a massive crowd watching every step and a panel of judges spotting every little mistake while you perform a routine is not the most relaxing of situations.
Why does imagery help?
Because it allows the mind to explore situations in a calm and rational way. This way, when we are in a stressful situation that we don't experience too frequently, such as a competition, we know what to expect and what we should do.
Otherwise, if we need to think about how we should react to things we are going to be stressed, which doesn't help make good decisions. We won't have time to think about how to react to crowds, pressure or mistakes either.
If we take a few minutes during training to relax in a comfortable position, close our eyes and take these steps to imagine the following:
Create diverse images with rich detail of the gym where the athlete normally rehearses routines.
Put yourself into a sporting setting of your choice. Imagine yourself watching others performing a skill of your choice. This can be a Body Difficulty, Apparatus difficulty, a risk or a collaboration we are working on. It can be done by a famous athlete, a friend or a teammate.
Now replace the individual performing the successful skill with yourself. It's important to make sure the individuals are doing the skill to perfection.
Repeat the skill in a different setting: a competition. Add a crowd, judges and other competitors. Keep imagining the skill done perfectly.
Now, imagine different situations where the skill could go wrong. Maybe it's an apparatus drop, a wobble, a fall, a bent leg or blanking out and not knowing how to continue the routine. Imagine you staying calm and continuing the routine without getting upset about it, knowing that if we dwell on it the rest of the routine may not be as good as it should. Imagine yourself smiling and finishing feeling proud no matter what.
If we practice this exercise on a regular basis a few weeks before a competition, and we focus on imagining this as richly as possible, it is proven it can help us manage stress and anxiety during an event.
How does imagery work?
The functional equivalence hypothesis suggests that the actual physical action of a skill shares the same neuro-physiological processes as the mental imaged action of a skill. This implies that imaging a well learned skill should be functionally equivalent to the actual physical action of the skill.
In the previous point we discussed an exercise to do at home or training before the days of the competition. Mental rehearsal, in contrast, can be helpful the day of the actual event, as it works best combined with actual physical exercise. It consists of rehearsing your entire routine, move by move, thinking about all the details you need to remember.
"...after the AD, do the penche keeping my shoulders square and keeping the legs very tight, while bouncing the ball..."
Many gymnasts use mental rehearsal for competitions already as it really helps in rhythmic gymnastics, especially when we remember that before getting onto the mat in front of the judges we should take a break of about 5 minutes for our physique to be at its prime. We can use this time to relax, breathe (this slows downs our heart rate, and prevent muscular tension) and rehearse what we are about to do before getting out there.
Observation can be done during training, at home or before a competition. It's a simple and versatile activity that can be a great tool for athletes, especially those who struggle with imagery exercises.
Some athletes can become skeptic if they fall into the mistake of believing that imagery exercises are a pseudo-scientific method with no evidences of the results, such as the law of attraction. This makes them not really focus on the imagery because they think it's pointless. Some other simply don't have a great capacity to imagine situations that haven't happened yet. They can benefit greatly from observation.
Observation consists of videoing and saving a good routine during a competition or at the gym, or a certain skill done successfully that you normally struggle with. When we feel insecure about our abilities or not confident, a coach or a qualified member of the club can show these recordings and go through them with us.
It's important someone supervises and leads an observation exercise for our minds not to go to places that are not useful. Commenting on how well we did and why, show us that we are physically capable of doing a skill we think we can't do, point out when we were concentrated, relaxed or confident, etc... are some of the things a qualified member can say to see your own potential and good reasoning you had in the past. The idea is that if we can see as an observer how we can overcome a challenge we had, we'll understand that there is no reason to think we can't do it again.
Scientific Experiments prove the effectiveness of mental exercises
There are many tests that prove the efficacy of mental exercises in sport, but there is one done particularly for rhythmic gymnastics that shows how helpful it can be: Use of video observation and motor imagery on jumping performance in national rhythmic gymnastics athletes. The University of Rome “Foro Italico”, the University of Hawaii, the University of Molise, and the University of Florence took part in this experiment.
The aim of this study was to evaluate whether a mental training protocol could improve gymnastic jumping performance. Seventy-two rhythmic gymnasts were randomly divided into an experimental and control group. At baseline, experimental group completed the Movement Imagery Questionnaire Revised to assess the gymnast ability to generate movement imagery.
A repeated measures design was used to compare two different types of training aimed at improving jumping performance: a video observation and mental imagery training associated with physical practice, for the experimental group, and physical practice alone for the control group. Before and after six weeks of training, their jumping performance was measured using the Hopping Test, Drop Jump , and Counter Movement Jump.
The the group that used observation and imagery exercises as part of their training was shown to improve jumping performance.