Shawn Johnson, Simone Biles, the Moors sisters, and Shallon Olsen: are the names of famous American and Canadian gymnasts who have already earned worldwide recognition, having demonstrated impressive results during the Olympics. These girls serve as powerful examples of how to behave, train, and achieve professional goals. In addition, they never give up and do everything necessary to work hard and follow schedules. Millions of people – regardless of age, geographical location, and knowledge – can observe the progress of gymnasts online and enjoy opportunities in this field of sports. However, not all may understand the numerous physical and psychological challenges that these youthful athletes face every day. Stress, anxiety, the necessity to develop professional skills, commitment, and motivation are primary psychological issues in sports performance (Röthlin, Birrer, Horvath, & Holtforth, 2016); however, the problem of burnout or overtraining remains one of the most significant and serious concerns among young female gymnasts. This paper discusses sports burnout as a psychological problem to be recognized within the field of gymnastics and analyzes psychological skills training techniques, including imagery, self-talk, and arousal regulation, along with associated obstacles.
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Though many may enjoy the beauty of gymnastics performances, this sport can be considered one of the most challenging and even the cruelest for its participants. Its demanding and time-consuming nature promotes rapid parental decision-making to avoid losing time and to allow potential gymnasts to start training at the earliest possible time (Phillips, 2016). A peculiar feature of this sport involves the intention on the part of participants to achieve international success and demonstrate the best results at any cost. Pion, Lenoir, Vandorpe, and Segers (2015) noted that success in gymnastics usually requires long hours of grueling and dedicated practice, including ten years of physical preparation. Gymnastics involves a combination of such qualities as balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength. Every movement must be properly planned, requiring a gymnast to train to promote the physical development of arms, legs, back, and other body parts. Though physical preparation plays an important role in female gymnastics, it is also necessary to keep in mind individuals’ need for emotional and psychological balance.
Gymnastics activities vary. For example, female all-around events include floor, vault, balance beam, and uneven bars (Erceg, Kalinski, & Milić, 2014). Each device requires certain skills related to the gymnastics environment. For example, the width of the balance beam apparatus is about 10 cm, and its length is usually 5 meters (Barreto et al., 2016). Gymnasts practicing and performing on this piece of equipment must maintain their balance at all times and perform certain exercises to prove their progress. Floor exercises are characterized by creative and defined movements within the confines of a specially designed mat. Vault activities are based on properly organized jumps over a vaulting table, and judges in the competition will evaluate the gymnast’s performance of twists and turns. The uneven bars event is also a required activity for female gymnasts. Furthermore, attaining outstanding achievement in only one of the events is not sufficient for success in gymnastics.
In addition, gymnasts cannot ignore individual and organizational characteristics. Women athletes participating in gymnastics must demonstrate good results in four events. The general look and the choice of musical background can influence the evaluation process. Age is also a factor in gymnastics. As a rule, sports judges and coaches are strict in terms of the age of potential gymnasts. During the first world championships, for example, the permitted maximum age was from 14 to 15 years for female participants; afterward, the age requirement was extended up to 16 years (Atiković, Kalinski, & Čuk, 2017). Regarding such standards and the time spent on preparation, a gymnast’s initial training should occur when a girl reaches the age of six to provide the best chance for success in talent identification and specialization (Pion et al., 2015). However, modern modifications show that age may not matter and that women age 30 can participate in gymnastics. Each country and organization establishes its own rules.
The age of the participants undergoes considerable discussion in terms of limitations or variety, as well as the effects that competing at different ages may have on gymnasts. Such factors as competitive standards, the demands of the sport, and the development of athletic abilities are crucial variables in the gymnastics industry (Hancock & Starkes, 2015). Peak performance in female gymnastics usually occurs at the age of 16. At that age, participants are mature and responsible enough to make independent decisions, evaluate personal abilities, and understand the necessary qualities they must develop. The professional assistance of coaches, psychologists, and other experts can be as effective and necessary as parental involvement in training. Cooperation among the adults involved in a gymnast’s life is important for young girls and professional gymnasts to aid their emotional and psychological well-being. In addition, adolescence is a period when girls undergo personal and hormonal changes, requiring recognition of a number of related problems and needs.
Not all stressful situations can be identified and prevented in gymnastics. Anxiety, concerns, motivation, and commitment can challenge female gymnasts from multiple perspectives. In fact, the list of psychological problems is long, indeed, depending on the people involved in the gymnast’s training processes, the surrounding environment, and the established goals. Burnout turns out to be one of the most frequent and expected outcomes of participating in gymnastics activities. This psychological and physical change evidences itself when the body works hard and long without enough time for rest, recovery, and re-loading, a process also known as overreaching and overtraining (DiFiori et al., 2014). Burnout frequently occurs as a result of chronic stress associated with an inability for young gymnasts to participate in all the available activities and events enjoyable for their age. For example, gymnasts must follow a special diet, observe schedules, and meet the physical standards demanded by gymnastics. Athletes may even have to choose between pursuing education and engaging in sports.
The main contributor to burnout involves a constant state of stress. In addition to insufficient time for recovery, young female gymnasts must deal with the challenge of competition and associated changes in motivation (Silber, 2017). During the first years of training, girls focus on developing skills, learning new techniques, meeting professional people, and having fun exploring their abilities. With time, however, goals change. Instead of fun, entertainment, and making friends with other girls who possess the same skills, the attention of young gymnasts turns to the number of medals earned, the possibility of participating in a competition, and the obligation to win and thus demonstrate personal superiority. As a result, poor concentration, insomnia, physical pain, anger, and depression develop, promoting burnout.
A peculiar feature of gymnastics burnout is the inability to recognize the problem at an early stage. Parents and coaches may believe that children who do not demonstrate oppression, frustration, or other disturbing behaviors are not bothered by externally imposed deadlines and obligations. At times, even gymnasts themselves fail to recognize the effects of burnout as a current psychological problem. Sports burnout usually has specific characteristics that may change athletes’ behavior, performance, and attitudes. The main symptoms and signs of burnout among young female gymnasts include, but are not limited to, decreased performance and low passion. Burnout may take different forms in such varying areas as the physical, psychological, and behavioral aspects of a competitor’s life (Gustafsson, Sagar, & Stenling, 2017). At the same time, it is important to admit that not all gymnasts are exposed to burnout, especially those who use the sport as a chance to solve personal and social problems (DiFiori et al., 2014). Each athlete is unique, and a number of personal characteristics may influence his or her level of fatigue, weaknesses, feelings of anger or apathy, and victimization of others in the individual’s social circles.
Many methods are available to deal with burnout and decrease its negative outcomes on young female athletes. In this paper, special attention will be paid to three techniques that can be offered to gymnasts: imagery, arousal regulation, and self-talk. These approaches have unique associated merits and drawbacks; thus, the task is not to define which may present the best option but to explain how the chosen tools can be employed in various sports situations. Gymnasts cannot afford to stop taking steps to achieve success in their performance and win competitions. Therefore, they are prepared to call on psychologists for help and professional advice (Röthlin et al., 2016). The goal of a psychologist, in this case, is not only to recognize a problem and find a solution but also to demonstrate the optimal conditions for achieving 100% performance (Röthlin et al., 2016). Psychological skills training techniques may be combined or used individually.
Imagery is a process whereby a person has to retrieve information from memory, generate images, and develop necessary senses. This practice has proved to show positive outcomes on cognitive, emotional, and behavioral factors (Gregg & Hall, 2018). Systematic imagery interventions may at times be recommended, and many psychologists use this technique spontaneously. For example, when a gymnast has to complete another task in a new place under the observation of a number of new people, it is important not to lose control and to remain confident. Thus, she may invoke thoughts of her local gym, as well as visualize an image of her parents to sustain feelings of support and protection. This approach is available to all athletes who have the ability to dream. Obstacles to the successful implementation of this technique include poor imagination and extensive negative motivation. Obviously, a psychologist is unlikely to be present during a performance and thus will not be able to guide a girl in real-time. Therefore, this process and its outcomes directly depend on the gymnast, who will be required to concentrate on the task at hand to avoid this obstacle.
Self-talk is another technique that helps girls to focus on their performance. Psychologists recommend that athletes practice talking to themselves aloud or inwardly (van Dyke, van Raalte, Mullin, & Brewer, 2018). As soon as a person can recognize personal problems and concerns, it becomes possible to develop a solution. It is also feasible to identify functional, motivational, and behavioral dimensions (van Dyke et al., 2018). Self-talk can inspire a gymnast and make her forget about her current problems. It may be enough to hear a familiar phrase and be inspired to take a serious step. This process can be instructional by nature when a gymnast gives audible orders (Röthlin et al., 2016), for example, saying, “raise a hand” or “take a step” aloud. Such instructions help the gymnast to remember the order of moves in a routine and appear confident to others. Motivational self-talk can increase a gymnast’s chance to achieve positive results, as well (Röthlin et al., 2016). As soon as a person begins to entertain doubts, the solution is to concentrate on the near future, the benefits of victory, or the individual’s current energy level and abilities.
The main obstacle in self-talk in the face of burnout is the necessity to begin. A gymnast can fail to find a necessary phrase or thought. To avoid complications, it helps to practice self-talk at home. An individual can stand in front of a mirror or talk to a favorite toy to practice. Once possessed, this skill can hardly be lost.
Finally, arousal regulation can help gymnasts to deal with burnout. This process is a combination of techniques that may influence physiological arousal (Röthlin et al., 2016). Individual preferences, psychological conditions, and physical readiness determine how the chosen technique may be used. Though arousal is hardly a complete solution to the problem of burnout in itself, it can be effective in identifying helpful tools to alleviate negative outcomes. Arousal regulation promotes less distraction, positive behavioral functionality, and a focus on what really matters to the athlete. The performance level can be thus maximized, and a gymnast can discover sufficient powers and abilities to complete a task, end a program, or even drop training for a while in order to avoid worsening a physical condition. However, a person may be challenged by an inability to understand when to implement this technique. To avoid this obstacle, it is better to have a person to look at and to consider the next step to be taken. Arousal regulation combines well with imagery and self-talk when burnout leaves nothing but despair and doubt about personal readiness to compete.
In general, research shows that burnout is a problem for many female gymnasts. Young girls are ready to turn to a psychologist for help in order to learn how to solve this problem and achieve positive results. Gymnastics is a sport that requires much practice, training, motivation, and commitment. Sometimes, an individual can cope with the sport’s associated challenges and needs. At other times, the athlete will require additional assistance. Burnout may be caused by an inability to create schedules or the lack of a professional coach. Personal problems and even hormonal changes can promote difficulties. However, regardless of the reasons for burnout, applying such techniques as self-talk, imagery, and arousal regulation can provide effective solutions. While burnout-related obstacles can create additional problems, appropriate training, positive emotions, and an understanding of the value and potential rewards of the chosen sport can help a female gymnast cope with the challenge of burnout.
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