Gymnastics: The mental game
In some sports, a brief lapse in concentration can lead to giving up a score, a turnover or a wild pitch.
In gymnastics, distractions usually lead to a face full of mat. This is why gymnastics head coach Jerry Reighard says gymnastics is 90 percent mental.
“We all do a lot of daydreaming,” Reighard said. “That’s part of your mental rest, your body is resting. In gymnastics, if you do that, you’re falling.”
The question isn’t whether or not the gymnasts can perform the maneuvers, but if they can hit when the pressure is on.
“It’s all mental,” he said. “It’s not like it’s the first time they’ve ever done the skills. It’s staying in the moment; it’s blocking out distractions – those are the two hardest things.”
Seniors Brittany Petzold and Emily Heinz have been mastering the art of the mental aspect of gymnastics with Reighard for four years.
“We talk to ourselves during our routines so that nothing else can come into our heads,” Heinz said. “We practice those distractions, like clapping, whistling, screaming, anything that can happen in a meet so that when we go there, nothing affects us.”
CMU has a sports psychologist that talks to the team to keep the athletes mentally trained.
Reighard also employs strategies during practice to try to simulate the meet atmosphere.
“We put them in a situation, ‘so and so just fell, now you have to hit,’” Reighard said. “I call it grandma grit. I ask our athletes, ‘if your grandma’s life depended on this skill right here, could you do it now?’ And of course they shake their head and they go up and they do it. If they fall I say, ‘bye grandma!’ So when I say grandma grit, it’s part of having the reach-down-inside-of-yourself grit to say, ‘I will make this.’”
Reighard said Petzold is the first to come to mind when he thinks of mental toughness.
“She’s overcoming some injuries,” Reighard said. “She has four events. She has extremely difficult routines, one of the highest-level vaults and she knows she’s being counted on every time. She knows she’s the anchor. I think Brittany has proved many times that she has the ability to be as mentally tough as anyone.”
The Shelby Township native is a two-time Mid-American Conference individual champion and has been named All-MAC all three years of her collegiate career.
Even with the added pressure of having more difficult routines and enduring multiple injuries, Petzold is more confident than ever.
“I’m not anywhere close to as nervous as I was my freshman year,” she said. “I think all the mental routines we do in practice and just competing over and over has built my confidence up.”
There are 11 different skills the gymnasts put together for most events, but Reighard said it’s important to focus on one skill at a time. However, they are not independent from each other.
“If you finish every skill, you’re set up to do the next one,” Reighard said. “But boy, if you get behind or out of position, now you’re playing catch-up and the next one gets worse and the next one gets worse, and pretty soon you’re off or you’re falling.”
Heinz said the key is to stop yourself before it’s too late when you know you’re not 100 percent focused.
“If something’s off or something comes into my head, I take a minute, I take a deep breath or I say ‘breathe,’” Heinz said. “I take a minute to stop and recompose myself. The judges aren’t going to notice you stopped for one second.”