How two of Australia’s top gymnasts overcame mental blocks

Mental Health Note: If reading this article causes any stress, please speak to someone you trust, or call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Beyond Blue.

It was one of the most defining moments of gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics. The world-famous Simone Biles performed a routine on the vault and promptly pulled out of the team event.

What was going on? The world watched on with confusion, shock and varied commentary. But for many gymnasts, the uncertainty and anxiety on her face was a story all too familiar. 

What Biles experienced was something she called the twisties. Also known as a mental block, there are different ways these can present for a gymnast. While it can be difficult to experience, two elite trampoline gymnasts share how they overcame their struggles. Dominic Clarke even went on to represent Australia at the Tokyo Olympics and Kira Ward was chosen as a Gymnastics Australia reserve for the Games!

Gymnastics NSW had a chat with these superstar athletes of Sydney Gymnastics Centre and discussed how mental blocks present, how it makes a gymnast feel and the steps taken to conquer them.

GNSW: What are mental blocks, and have you experienced them?

Dominic: There are lots of different names – mental blocks, skill problems, awareness issues, skill loss. You don’t actually ever lose the skill, they’re in your brain somewhere. It’s similar to a writer’s block or an artist’s block. Some athletes struggle with spatial awareness, like Simone who got lost in the air and got confused. It’s very individual and everybody’s experience will be different. I’ve never had awareness problems, but I have had more skill blocks. For example, I will go to take off for a skill and my brain will just say no. I’ll either kill bounce, stop or sometimes I can’t even jump.

Kira: I’ve experienced both skill blocks and aerial awareness loss. Sometimes your mind really wants to do it and can see it, but your body is in a completely different space. Or you’re getting lost in a skill and safety comes into play. I think it was really great Simone took the stance of safety first.

GNSW: Tell us more about your experience…

Dominic: For me it was a specific skill, a back salt. It sounds like literally one of the easiest skills in gymnastics. You could get me to jump full height and do a double twisting, triple back somersault and I could do that no problem. But ask me to jump medium height and do just a single back somersault, and my brain would say no. I started having these issues as a young athlete, I learnt back salts and then I lost back salts, then I learnt them again. Sometimes it would be for a week or two weeks, sometimes it would be for various months. And sometimes it festered into my other skills.

Kira: Two years ago, I was having mental blocks with back salts. One of the first skills you learnt. I’ve never really experienced mental blocks before then. It was two training sessions before we were meant to leave for nationals. Only two months out before we were meant to leave for our third Olympic trials. That was more traumatic for me than aerial skill issues, because I knew when I was getting lost in a skill, I could go back and re-learn it. A mental block is a lot deeper than that. It takes a lot more untangling to get back to where you are.

GNSW: How did you feel going through your mental blocks?

Dominic: It’s just embarrassing. Last time I had serious mental blocks was in 2016. I had a really good 2015 season and there was a lot of pressure leading up to worlds. The following year I broke down. It festered into all my other skills. There was a point my coach would ask me to get on the trampoline and do a forward roll and I couldn’t get my body to rotate over itself.

Kira: It’s really frustrating as an athlete because you know what you’re capable of. And you know you can do it, there’s just something internally that’s not letting you. Some days I’d come into the gym and I would be able to do it, and some days I wouldn’t and I’d just heap into a ball and cry. When you’re standing on a trampoline and you can’t do a back somersault in front of the whole gym, there’s a level of embarrassment where there shouldn’t be. There is a huge stigma around it and it’s not spoken about enough. I think it’s really great that GymNSW is doing this, and the conversation has started since the Olympics. That’s how things can be overcome and addressed. 

GNSW: Do you know what caused the mental blocks?

Dominic: No, I don’t know. It can be different things for different athletes. Sometimes it could be due to a growth spurt, maybe a kid had too much red cordial and took off more than usual and got spooked. Maybe something is going on at home.

Kira: I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I always have. So I think that’s where a lot of my mental blocks came from. I wasn’t voicing how I felt with the pressure all the time, so it came out in that manner.

GNSW: Please, tell us how you overcame your skill issues? What was the process?

Dominic: I’m at a really great point now where I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome it but that I live with that concern more comfortably. I think it’s okay to have small skill anxieties and that’s important for people to know. It gets better and to a point where you are comfortable, and you are safe and training is good. And everything is easy. It’s a really slow process, you just need to trust in that. For me, it was stripping everything back to basics. And communicating with my coach, making sure I would stay within my comfort zone. And then [my coach Belinda] would do one item that would push me mentally that training and that was it. But what she pushed me on that day was in my comfort zone the next. It was slowly putting the pieces of a puzzle back together one by one. Slowly building height etc. That was for me. It’s individual.

Kira: It was honestly a really hard time for me, and this happened to me when I was an adult. I got to a point where I had re-learnt my other backwards skills, like double backs and other skills. But I wasn’t doing any back salts. I was getting so triggered emotionally at training so we put it on pause. I did a lot of work on myself outside the gym. I acknowledged that I was internalising a lot of things and wasn’t talking to people about the pressures I was feeling. I learnt about mindfulness and breathing techniques. And then once I could successfully implement that into my training, that’s when I started to see progress. I just ended up doing it on my own terms. I was training for the worlds synchro event, so every training session when I knew that was coming up, I would just take myself away to a back trampoline and try and build up my confidence. And that’s what worked for me. I had to do it in my own time and it took me a while to realise that. Everyone is different.

GNSW: What advice do you have to gymnasts who may experience this?

Dominic: Be kind to yourself at training. Celebrate the little wins. Take your time, it takes lots of time and work. You want to keep training fun.

Kira: One things that I preach within my own athletic and coaching career – communication. The Even if it’s something as simple as feeling like a skill was a little bit different, feels weird. Voice that and tell your coach and they can help you through it. Our coaches and the people around us don’t know what’s going on inside our heads. So talk to people. If you don’t feel like you can go to your coach straight away, talk to other athletes around you. Talk to your parents. To anyone you feel comfortable with. There will be someone who is able to help you. The sooner you address it, the easier it’s going to be to overcome.

GNSW: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Dominic: Gymnastics is 50 per cent mental, 50 per cent physical. I know how to manage it now, and my coach knows how to manage it with me. She knows when to push me mentally and when to pull back. It’s all about communication. At the end of the day, Simone Biles has opened a conversation. That’s so important to have.

Kira: Honestly, if we are being real. I am much better for it all. I think the more we talk about it, the more knowledge everyone gets, coaches, support staff and other adults, the better our sport can be.