With ancient Greek origins, the sport of gymnastics is known for combining strength with flexibility performed in an artistic manner. Gymnastics training starts from a very early age for good reason – it takes many years to develop the varied skills needed to perform the sport. Known for high-risk skills, training has to be progressive and consistent – building skills gradually over time. But physical training is just one aspect of this sport, another aspect that may not appear obvious is the mental training required to perform at competition level. Read on to find out about how the latest research points to the psychological benefits of gymnastics.
Research conducted by Allison McDavitt titled ‘Psychological Aspects of Gymnastics as Perceived by Athletic Trainers’ published in 2016 found that as competition starts to intensify, young gymnasts can find it challenging when presented with a range of stressors. These stressors can vary from the pressure to succeed and feeling embarrassed by poor performance. Injuries and other setbacks are common stressors within gymnastics. With injuries, athletes can suffer the obvious physical effects but also psychological stress like muscle tension which can play havoc with the recovery process (McDavitt, 2016).
Results of the study by McDavitt (2016) show that there is an opportunity to develop psychological skills during a gymnasts lifetime – especially from a young age. Other research in this field shows that the mental toughness that comes about from gymnastics enables athletes “to overcome fear and regain determination after injury or setbacks”. Adding that because gymnasts compete from a young age they “develop self-confidence as a result of being exposed to and handling this unique pressure” (McDavitt 2016).
Think of mental toughness as resilience. Resilience is recognised as a good trait to have – it can protect us from overwhelming experiences as well as maintaining balance when our lives get chaotic. But even more so, resilience can help avoid mental health problems down the track. There are some estimates that approximately 1 in 5 adults suffers a mental illness at some point in their lives. Addressing mental health should be everyone’s concern.
And so, improving an athlete’s resilience will not only help them in their sport but also in their daily lives outside of sport. The ability to manage stress can be taught, but for true effectiveness, it must happen gradually over time – just like training to become a gymnast. This is called progressive training. Experienced coaches and sports psychologists can work with athletes from a young age to teach psychological strategies aimed at preventing mental health disorders. Some of these strategies mentioned by McDavitt (2016) include:
- Goal setting.
- Positive reinforcement.
Perhaps the biggest psychological benefit to come out of gymnastics is mental training. Learning different techniques to manage stressors can help eliminate tension in the body. If the training is progressive, it can be taught in increments – later on, it can be further developed with a more comprehensive mental training program.
A Lifelong Skill
In our personal lives, learning to manage stress is worthwhile because life can get pretty hectic at times. Stress can be short term or long term, but prolonged exposure to stress can really impact a person’s physical health. From increased blood pressure, raised cortisol levels or heart disease to name but a few. But of course, long term stress can also affect the relationships we have – impacting those closest to us, like our families.
They say that changing a habit takes 21 days. But it can still be a real struggle. It’s far better to aim for good habits starting from a young age – they just become the norm and life is easier. As such, teaching children how to manage stress early on can translate into valuable life skills as they grow. And if they can learn these strategies during their sports training – even better.
The mind-body connection has become popular lately – taking care of our physical health is crucial and so is taking care of our mental health. Historically, mental health has been a taboo subject, but today the mind-body connection is being acknowledged as the way forward. And sports science is definitely interested in the mind-body connection.
For a gymnastics club near you, why not look up your local PCYC and let the kids explore the world of gymnastics. The PCYC is firm about empowering our youth, and that’s the way it should be.