Keeping the factors just described in mind, the first and foremost goal in gymnastics psychology is to optimize the person–environment relationship with regard to a given task in order to enable a gymnast to optimize his/her behavior to best suit a given situation. It is thus essential to organize a person–task–environment fit for the attainment of peak performance (Schack & Hackfort, 2007). Optimizing the environment by using, for instance, a vaulting table from a different manufacturer does not necessarily lead to significant changes in observable performance in the short run, but the gymnast may have a better “feeling” of the performed vaults. This, however, could be a precondition for significant changes in observable behavior. In order to optimize the person–environment relationship with regard to a given task one fundamental step would be to equip the gymnast with skills that may support this. Nevertheless, influences hampering a person–task–environment fit may contribute to the development of certain problems (Schack & Hackfort, 2007).
In the following sections we will at first summarize psychological influences and performance-related challenges in high-performance gymnastics with regard to the acting person, the environment, and the task. Afterwards, we will derive psychological intervention methods that have proven to be advantageous for gymnasts to optimize the person–task–environment fit, and that can easily be applied in gymnastics training. Finally, we will pose several questions that still need to be answered with regard to gymnastics psychology.
Psychological influences and performance-related demands in high-performance gymnastics
Person: gymnasts’ personality traits and psychological states
Physiological and psychological factors are thought to influence gymnasts’ behavior and thus their performance. Two categories of psychological factors can be distinguished. The first category comprises enduring personality traits that may serve as templates for assimilating and accommodating environmental stimuli. The second category deals with psychological responses in particular situations, called states. For example, to be anxious in a wide variety of situations is a personality trait, whereas the actual manifestation of anxiety prior to performing a complex skill the first time without coach assistance is situation-specific and thus more a state rather than a trait.
Empirical evidence indicates that differences in athletes’ personality traits covary with factors such as type of sport, skill level, competition level, gender, and cultural background. Personality alone is thus a rather weak predictor of gymnasts’ behavior and performance in a wide variety of situations. Therefore, it is noted that information about gymnasts’ personality, plus information about the situation, plus information about the interaction of gymnasts’ personality with the situation better predict a gymnasts’ performance than a personality or a situation analysis alone (Vanden Auweele et al., 2001).
Using such a multidimensional and interactional approach, sport psychologists attempt to characterize a psychological profile for elite gymnasts in which selected psychological characteristics are identified that covary with gymnasts’ expertise. Compared to their less-skilled counterparts or as compared to novices, elite gymnasts are thought to have a high degree of self-confidence, are less anxious, are mentally tough, have a clear focus on the task, view difficult situations as challenging, are intrinsically motivated, attribute failures more to external events, and are strongly committed to gymnastics. In contrast, aspects such as low self-confidence, a high degree of anxiety, focus on distractions, perceiving difficult situations as being over-challenging, being extrinsically motivated, or attributing failures to oneself are usually associated with poor gymnastics performance (Spink, 1990). It is thus the right mixture of perceptions, cognitions, emotions, and behaviors that influences the pathway to performance. Despite the mentioned differences between elite gymnasts and less-skilled counterparts it should be kept in mind that the contribution of psychological characteristics (traits/states) explains only approximately 30% of athletes’ behavioral variance.
Seen in the long run, psychological factors in combination with the gymnasts’ physiological state, the environment, and the task play important roles in differentiating between elite gymnasts and less-skilled gymnasts. Several authors agree that the systematic use of psychological skills and strategies may support optimizing psychological states in the short run and may in turn lead to changes in personality traits in the long run. These skills and strategies should be learned and continually practiced, as well as integrated into gymnasts’ physical preparation, and refined if necessary so that a gymnast is able to perform to his/her maximum potential. The systematic application of psychological skills and strategies should support the balance between psychological and environmental factors, thus facilitating learning und stabilizing performance.
It can be summed up, first, that there are several personality traits and psychological states that seem to be more beneficial to a gymnast’s performance, development, and mental health than others, and second, that continually practicing psychological skills and strategies may influence psychological states in the short run. These changes in psychological states may in turn lead to changes in personality traits in the long run, leading to enhancements in personality development.
Environment: coach’s behavior related to gymnasts’ development
From a psychological point of view, the environment is comprised of the various social factors incorporating social support, peer groups, or norms, and thus has a potential influence on the gymnast. Elite gymnasts compete and train in a physical, social, psychological, and organizational environment that can have both facilitative and debilitative effects upon the achievement of ideal performance states, and a lot of elite gymnasts have modified their lifestyle for the sake of their training. Furthermore, one should acknowledge that the active or passive presence of other people can have direct or indirect influences on the gymnast. Although gymnastics can be seen as an individual sport, gymnasts spend most of their time with their training groups, so that peer pressure and other interindividual phenomena occur as a consequence. Family as well as other team members could strengthen or weaken gymnasts’ performance by the way they interact with each other. One of the most influencing environmental factors is without question the coach and thus we will focus on this factor in the next few paragraphs.
It is argued that good coaches are able to develop gymnasts to their personal best. However, coaches’ work is a multidimensional and also a highly dynamic process. Coaches not only organize and manage training but also support and interact with the gymnasts before, during, and after competition. Coaches furthermore deal with aspects such as parental influences, spectators, or gymnasts’ personal concerns, as well as represent the sport of gymnastics, and fulfill expectations of committees, federations, and others. Given this diversity in coaching demands, early research centered on the personality traits of coaches and it was believed that great coaches were born not made. Since then, however, research has evolved to support the notion of a situation-specific leadership whilst highlighting the interaction between the personality of the coach (leader), the situation, and factors such as characteristics of the followers, which are likely to influence coaches’ behavior (Horn, 2008).
In a multidimensional approach of leadership, consequences in both gymnasts’ performance and satisfaction evolve as a result of the interaction of three components of coaches’ behavior: (1) required behavior, (2) preferred behavior, and (3) actual behavior. Required behaviors are those that conform to the established norms in gymnastics. For example, national team coaches are expected to behave in a certain manner in the presence of their gymnasts. Preferred behaviors are those behaviors of a coach that are preferred by the gymnasts. Members of a league team could prefer that their coach also has an eye on the social part of the sport activity. Actual behaviors are those behaviors that the coach exhibits in a particular situation. Empirical evidence highlights that the congruence between the three components is a significant predictor of gymnasts’ satisfaction and performance (Cox, 2007). In other words: gymnasts are likely to perform better and they are more satisfied when actual and required behaviors are in line with the gymnasts’ preferred coach behavior.
Required behaviors of gymnastics coaches predominantly differ as a function of coaching level, whereas preferred coaching behaviors predominantly differ depending on gymnasts’ gender and age. Actual coaching behaviors such as establishing a high level of trust with gymnasts, being aware of gymnasts’ individual (psychological and social) needs, making fair and comprehensible decisions, setting realistic expectations for each individual, or remaining calm under pressure are only some examples that are thought to have a strong influence on gymnasts’ performance, independent of preferred and required behaviors. One aspect that integrates most of the aforementioned characteristics is the compatibility between coach and gymnast. Compatible coach–gymnasts dyads are characterized by effective and open communication and the presence of rewarding behavior for effort and performance in a two-sided free interaction. Both sides feel respect for each other and appreciate the other’s role.
It may sound that the aforementioned attributes are impossible to adopt for a coach in the multidimensional and complex setting of gymnastics. However, we feel that as it is a hard piece of work for a young gymnast to acquire the diverse gymnastics skills, it may also be a hard piece of work for a young coach to acquire the diverse attributes and characteristics that may support gymnasts to perform to their personal best. Taken together, effective coaching depends on the coaches’ qualities, the chosen leadership behavior or style, the athletes’ qualities, and the given situational factors. This can lead to positive personality development (including psychological well-being) for the gymnasts in the long run as well as prevention or clarification of emerging problems in the short run.
Task: acquiring, controlling, and losing gymnastics skills
When a gymnast leaves the springboard to perform, for example, a Yurchenko vault, his/her actions look quite fluid and easy but they are in reality quite complex. Information from different sensory systems needs to be integrated in order to perform a complex skill in a precise and safe manner. The higher the expertise level of a gymnast, the more likely he/she will regulate his/her actions directly based on environmental information, and motor actions are strongly contingent upon the acquired sensory input. However, given the complexity and dynamic character of gymnastics skills, performance may differ from training to competition, and environmental influences may lead to changes in psychological states, thus influencing task execution in different situations.
Dramatic changes in psychological states are thought to be a potential precondition for movement errors and (in the worst case) for injuries. They are also thought to be preconditions for a phenomenon implying that skills appear to be suddenly lost by a gymnast (Day et al., 2006). When suffering from such a “lost-skill syndrome,” gymnasts find themselves unable to perform a skill that was previously performed in an automatic manner. Such a loss of skill often results from a singular situation in which the gymnast performed a complex skill and lost spatial orientation during skill performance, sometimes leading to a serious fall. This loss of skill can have significant consequences. For instance, most gymnasts show a strong stress response when trying to perform a “lost” skill, which usually leads to a complete avoidance of skill execution or breakdown in motor control. This stress response often comprises perceptual and attentional changes, heightened levels of cognitive and somatic anxiety, perceived loss of control, and negative self-talk. Some gymnasts are still able to initiate an intended skill. However, during skill execution they often find themselves performing a different skill than the one that was intended (e.g., somersault with one and a half twist instead of somersault with two and a half twist). Finally, the loss of a skill often transfers to skills with a similar movement structure. In sum, a loss of skill could imply a career-destroying potential for a gymnast, since this phenomenon seems to be very resistant to change.
Taken together, dramatic changes in psychological states are thought to be a potential precondition for a loss of skill, which can have negative consequences for a gymnast. Even if the causes of lost-skill syndrome are still not fully understood, a systematic implementation of psychological interventions in gymnastics training could not only be one fruitful way to prevent a loss of skill but also to equip a developing gymnast with skills that may support him/her in attaining peak performance.
Psychological interventions in gymnastics
In this section methods for optimizing gymnasts’ performance on a systematic basis will be discussed. It was already highlighted that elite gymnasts possess certain (psychological) characteristics that make it possible for them to experience unprecedented success. Empirical evidence highlights that psychological intervention programs are effective in developing and enhancing psychological skills, and thus are effective in enhancing gymnasts’ performance. Furthermore, several psychological models and theories have been formulated to clarify the guidelines for an optimized psychological preparation, and to evaluate the development of psychological skills (Gardner & Moore, 2004).
From the current research it is also apparent that there are not necessarily linear relationships between the use of specific psychological methods and the development or change in specific psychological skills. Therefore, using psychological methods in gymnastics training is not trivial. It may seem obvious that imagery training (as a psychological method) influences imagery skill when practiced regularly. However, imagery training may also lead to changes in aspects such as self-confidence and anxiety. In light of this, coaches should be able to provide their gymnasts with a base of psychological support. In order to assist gymnasts in reaching peak performance and taking into account the complexity of task, environmental/social demands, characteristics of the gymnast, as well as interactions between the three entities, it becomes obvious that the application of specific psychological methods can be a decisive factor, making the difference between success and failure in a competitive context. Gymnastics coaches are thus advised to apply state-of-the-art knowledge on psychological methods in a person-centered approach when working with gymnasts of all ages. Seen in the long run, we argue that such an approach is most effective if the gymnast is able to personalize and claim ownership of specific methods in such a way that they become useful strategies for him/her. In the next paragraph we will characterize three strategic approaches for training and competition as well as important psychological methods to be integrated in gymnastics training.
Strategies for training and competition
The general purpose of using psychological methods is to put oneself in an optimally aroused, confident, and focused state immediately before as well as during routine execution. This aim, however, implies that the used methods have been developed in gymnastics training on a systematic basis leading to the intended changes in arousal, confidence, or focus. Imagine, for instance, a gymnast who is going to perform his high bar routine in a world championship competition. He is the last competitor and knows that he would be able to make it to the first place if he performs the routine without any major errors. What can he do to cope with this situation? Or, extending the question, what could have been done in his training, prior to this competitive situation? From the current research and from the authors’ own experiences as sport psychologist, it is proposed that the aforementioned questions can be addressed by means of the following three intertwined descriptions (Cox, 2007).
First, coaches are encouraged to develop training and competition plans together with their gymnasts. These plans should comprise the individual goals, the steps and behaviors necessary to reach these goals, as well as the steps that should be taken in case of emerging problems. Using training diaries is only one way of implementing this strategy. Gymnasts’ individual goals should be evaluated in a systematic way relative to the individual development of the gymnast (e.g., by using competitive simulation), and refined if necessary and/or appropriate.
Second, coaches may integrate general psychological skills training programs into gymnasts’ physical training on a regular basis. These programs should aim at teaching gymnasts different psychological methods to optimize different psychological skills. Such training programs usually consist of several sessions. Each session can address different psychological methods and psychological skills, such as relaxation techniques (e.g., awareness of abdominal breathing), self-talk techniques (e.g., using positive self-talk to cope with fear), focusing (e.g., shifting focus from narrow to broad), or imagery techniques (e.g., shifting imagery perspective from internal to external). When applying such a program, the gymnast should be given time to explore which psychological methods are more appropriate for him/her in affecting specific psychological skills. While using autogenic training for controlling arousal level may satisfy one gymnast, another gymnast may prefer to use progressive muscular relaxation. From the authors’ own experience it is beneficial to begin integrating such a program in gymnastics groups at ages 11–13 for two 30-minute sessions per week over a time period of 6–7 months.
Third, while the previous step is of high importance in advancing young gymnasts to apply psychological techniques in daily training and in competition, most sport psychologists would argue that psychological methods are most effective if they are adapted individually to each gymnasts’ strengths and weaknesses. It is likely that different gymnasts will exhibit different profiles relative to their psychological skills. At first, it may therefore be beneficial to assess the gymnasts’ psychological strengths and weaknesses and use this as a starting point to equip the gymnast with further psychological methods or to improve the application of already known methods. At this step it is recommended to consult a professional sport psychologist. Afterwards, selected psychological methods should be integrated into individual programs that comprise a particular, yet individual, collection of psychological methods that best suit the gymnasts’ needs. These methods can have different functions and they can be applied during training, in order to regulate psychological states or to facilitate skill acquisition. In the following paragraphs we will characterize some of the most important psychological methods in gymnastics and describe how they can be incorporated into an individual program for an upcoming vault performance.
Psychological methods integrated into gymnastics routines
When the gymnast prepares his-/herself and walks towards the starting point on the run-up track, he/she could use particular coping methods (e.g., self-talk or abdominal breathing) to balance his/her arousal level as well as to create an atmosphere of self-confidence. Afterwards, the gymnast could use a short imaging period during which he/she imagines several key points/phases of the intended vault as well as a successful outcome. When he/she is signaled to vault, the attention could be focused on a relevant external (e.g., springboard or vaulting table) or internal cue (thought). This shift in attention leads to the execution of the vault. As the vault is executed, the gymnast stays calm. If possible he/she can use visual spotting for spatial orientation during the vault. After finishing the vault, the gymnast could apply a strategy to clear the mind for the next apparatus. Critical analysis should be saved for the next training session. Additionally, during breaks, he/she could engage a conversation with the teammates or listen to relaxing music while imaging a restful scene.
To be effective, the aforementioned methods and strategies must be practiced systematically. Their temporal length should be consistent from trial to trial, and its execution should occur at a consistent time relative to the execution of the vault. Since psychological methods can be very individual in nature, the reader should try to understand the following paragraphs as modules that can be used to prepare specific mental skills for individual gymnasts.
The first module refers to methods the gymnast could use to cope with a particular (stressful) situation. In gymnastics, coping predominantly refers to expending effort to master, minimize, or tolerate stress, which is likely to occur immediately prior to the execution of a gymnastics routine, and which can recur on each apparatus during a competition. Coping can focus on the stress-causing problem itself (problem-focused coping) or on the accompanying emotions (emotion-focused coping) when under stress. The gymnast can furthermore actively engage the problem or the emotion (approach coping) or try to avoid the current problem or the emotion (avoidance coping). There are several factors influencing the effectiveness of different coping strategies. First, it is thought, that females benefit more from the use of emotion-focused coping than males do. They also report to benefit more from social support to cope with stressful situations. Knowing the coping preferences of individual gymnasts is an important precondition for psychological interventions. Second, coping strategies that match the stressor are most effective. A problem-focused coping strategy should be more effective in dealing with cognitive anxiety as compared to an emotion-focused strategy. This may, however, differ from gymnast to gymnast. Therefore, it is also necessary to know the psychological responses of a stressed gymnast. Third, approach and avoidance coping are both beneficial in the short run, but only approach coping (problem- and emotion-focused strategy) is effective in the long run. Coping strategies are usually integrated in gymnastics training with either a somatic focus (e.g., deep abdominal breathing), or a cognitive focus (e.g., self-talk). Abdominal breathing or self-talk can easily be applied in almost every environmental setting or competitive situation when needed. Further, the combination of abdominal breathing and self-talk (or imagery, see below) as autogenic training or progressive relaxation can, for instance, be applied prior to a competition or after an exhausting training session.
The second module comprises the use of imagery as a psychological method. Imagery as a process implies using all senses to create or recreate an experience in the mind. In gymnastics, imagery may be used for motivational or cognitive purposes. Imagery is thought to be an effective technique for practicing as well as adjusting technical and tactical elements of the routines (in the short run and in the long run) as well as a technique to prevent injury by reducing the number of repetitions practiced. These could include mentally simulating competitive environments, as well as building self-confidence and focus. The relationship between imagery use and performance in gymnastics seems to be affected by several factors such as the content of imagery, the skill level of the gymnast, the imagery ability of the gymnast, the perspective and sensory focus used during imagery, and the amount and duration of imagery use during training (Weinberg, 2008).
For imagery to be effective, first, the content of imagery needs to be adapted to each individual gymnast depending on his/her current setting and goals. A young gymnast may be more receptive to using metaphorical images such as imaging being a fast running panther, whereas a more experienced gymnast may be more receptive to imaging certain technical details of gymnastics skills. Second, a certain amount of skill is necessary, and thus, experienced gymnasts will potentially benefit to a larger degree from imagery. Good imagery ability is another significant predictor of the effectiveness of imagery. When working with gymnasts, coaches will find that some gymnasts are able to imagine gymnastics skills vividly with a lot of detail and a high degree of controllability whereas other gymnasts have difficulties imaging even simple situations and skills from their sport. Third, while imagery can be used from different perspectives (internal, external) and focused on different senses (e.g., visual, kinesthetic, or auditory), empirical evidence suggests that a kinesthetic focus is superior for the acquisition and optimization of motor skills. However, experienced gymnasts often report to have specific preferences in imagery perspective and sensory modality, and it may be advisable to assess gymnasts’ preference in each individual case.
A third module comprises visual spotting as a psychological method to be used during skill performance. When a gymnast intentionally fixates his/her gaze, for example, to a particular reference point in the environment (e.g., end of the balance beam during a standing scale), this is what is called visual spotting. It is assumed that fixating the gaze to environmental reference points during skill execution enables the gymnast to optimize visual information pickup for spatial orientation. Empirical evidence suggests that gymnasts use visual spotting in the performance of gymnastics skills, and that there exist relationships between visual spotting and movement kinematics, thus arguing for the functional role of spotting in the optimization of skill execution (Heinen, 2011). Visual spotting helps the gymnast to engage a more external focus of attention, which usually leads to a more fluid and precise movement execution even in stressful situations. It is therefore suggested that spotting techniques should be integrated in gymnastics training on a systematic and regular basis. It should, however, be acknowledged that gaze during visual spotting should be first and foremost directed to the invariant properties of the environment, or the specific apparatus, that the gymnast will find in different gyms or when performing on an apparatus from a different manufacturer. This may help the gymnast to stabilize skill execution even if he/she engages in a stressful situation or has to deal with problems such as lost-skill syndrome or alike.
To sum up, it is stated that the discussed psychological methods can be thought of as a set of tools that a gymnast could use to optimize his/her psychological states and in turn to optimize subjective and objective performance. From the authors’ point of view the discussed modules are highly effective when integrated in gymnastics training. However, there may be other psychological intervention strategies that could prove to be effective for individual gymnasts. To be effective, the methods should be practiced in a systematic and regular manner, and they should be integrated with physical training in such a way that the gymnast is able to personalize and claim ownership of the methods for his/her individual needs.
Elite gymnasts not only possess specific psychological states but also regulate complex skills more precisely than their less-skilled counterparts. However, dramatic changes in psychological states are thought to be a potential precondition for movement errors, injuries, or even for a loss of skill. Further research should try to better understand these. Experienced gymnasts are far from being “machines” that produce the same pattern of movement in every trial. Even if this might look so at first sight, biomechanical analyses usually reveal that there will always remain some trial-to-trial variability, and the question would be which (psychological) factors influence this variability and when does this variability support and when does it hamper performance. Such questions can only be addressed when trying to integrate fields such as psychology, movement science, and biomechanics. Such an integrative approach implies specific methods such as measuring gaze behavior, and movement behavior (kinematics and muscular activation) during complex skill performance. An additional line of research should focus on evaluating different intervention strategies in case of a manifested lost-skill syndrome.
Taking into account the development of new media and new technologies such as virtual reality devices, or augmented reality devices, it could be one interesting way in gymnastics psychology to research the potential and usability of such devices in psychological interventions. Finally, and taking into account recent trends in fields such as neuroscience or psychophysiology, it could be interesting to see to what degree psychophysiological or neurophysiological intervention strategies (e.g., transcranial magnetic stimulation or galvanic vestibular stimulation) could support psychological training, physical training, or both in high-performance gymnastics.
The relationship between psychological characteristics and gymnasts’ performance may covary with other factors such as gender, age, cultural background, and so on. Therefore, investigating these relationships could be one fruitful way for further research. This could also help to address questions related to talent identification and talent selection in gymnastics. It could potentially reveal alternative explanations for the development of serious problems in gymnastics, such as eating disorders, drug abuse, injury, burn out, or drop out. It would additionally be interesting to broaden such research to gymnasts with particular expertise on a particular apparatus and to compare their psychological profile to all-around gymnasts or to specialists on other apparatus. This could address the question why gymnasts develop particular preferences for an apparatus while others do not.
There is a variety of influences in the environment and it would be fruitful for further research to assess the short-term effects of influences from factors such as coaches, spectators, judges, or other gymnasts’ behavior on gymnasts’ psychological states, as well as long-term effects of factors such as parents, peers, or other gymnasts from the same club or same team on gymnasts’ (personality) development. While one would agree that social support could be important in the personality development of a gymnast, the effects of rather “pushy” or “ignorant” parents, highly competitive training regimes, or situations like gymnasts living far away from home, on gymnasts’ personality development are less clear, and should be studied more.
The diverse behaviors in gymnastics result from the interplay of person acting in a particular environment with regard to specific tasks. A person–task–environment fit is a significant precondition for gymnasts’ optimization of actions in a particular situation (e.g., competition) and thus for the attainment of peak performance. There are several personality traits and psychological states that seem to be related to gymnasts’ performance, development, and mental health. Psychological methods can be thought of as a set of tools that a gymnast could use to optimize his/her psychological states and in turn to optimize performance. To be effective, the methods should be practiced in a systematic and regular manner, and they should be integrated with physical training in such a way that the gymnast is able to personalize and claim ownership of the methods for his/her individual needs. Continually practicing psychological methods and strategies may influence psychological states in the short run. These changes in psychological states may in turn lead to changes in personality traits in the long run, leading to enhancements in personality development, which should be considered positive in nature. However, the relationship between the configuration of psychological characteristics and gymnasts’ performance may covary with other factors such as gender, age, cultural background, and so on. Gymnastics coaches are advised to apply state-of-the-art knowledge on psychological methods in a person-centered approach when working with gymnasts of all ages. Effective coaching is characterized by an open communication and the presence of coaches’ rewarding behavior for gymnasts’ effort and performance. The coach and the gymnasts feel respect for one another and appreciate each other’s roles.
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