Helping Your Gymnast Develop Confidence

Students can be talented but not excel if they lack confidence.

A lack of confidence in gymnastics can be frustrating and concerning.  It’s difficult to see an athlete who has great talent be unable to compete at their full ability due to low confidence or fear of failure.  Not only is it frustrating, but can even be dangerous.   Without the confidence and focus- there is a greater risk of injury.
The confidence building “team” includes coaches, parents/family and teammates (or classmates).

What is confidence – really? It is the sum of all of the positive and negative input and experiences in the gymnast’s life that he or she relates (consciously or subconsciously) to performance. The gymnast must be able to control mental state, banishing negative mental images and reinforcing positive ones.

“Coaching” isn’t just about physical development, but includes the ability to help gymnasts build the confidence they need to win in the face of competitive pressures, which are often much higher in gymnastics than in other sports.

So when confidence is waning or lacking, what can you do?

First, find the reason for low (or no) confidence.

These are good questions to ask about your gymnast:

Is there fear of injury?

Or fear of failure?

Or fear of letting someone down?

Does she have too much pressure to perform perfectly?

Is the lack of confidence associated with other aspects in her life, or specifically to gymnastics?

The solution is directly dependent on the reason for the lack of confidence.

A recent fall on a particular skill might lead to fear of another fall, pain or injury, but fear of letting someone down might stem from much larger issues that may relate to several members of the confidence building “team”.

The Gymnastics Zone (one of the largest gymnastics information sites in the world) is chock full of great information. I found their 15 principals of building confidence valuable to add in developing your own confidence development “process”.

What can be done to improve confidence?

#1 – The “Team” Needs to Work to Build Each Gymnasts Confidence

Sometimes that order is different in the case of individual gymnasts, but these are always the groups that have the most effect on any gymnast’s confidence. To build a gymnast’s confidence to the maximum degree, the entire “team” must be positively participating in programming gymnast confidence.

#2 – The Gym is a Mirror for Gymnasts

Gymnasts see themselves in the reflection of their gym environment. Different gym environments can cause different reflections. To a great extent a gymnast’s image of themselves is a result of the positive or negative responses of others around them in the gym.

#3 – Parents Present Their Own Mirror for Their Gymnast

The most important thing parents can provide for their gymnasts (and their gymnast’s success) is unconditional love. Unconditional love, in relation to gymnastics, means that gymnasts know and understand that their parents love them, regardless of how well they do in gymnastics. If gymnasts think their parents will love them less if they don’t “win” or do well, then, parents have failed to give gymnasts a needed basic, solid foundation of support. Unconditional love and support gives gymnasts a basic psychological base of confidence with which to face gymnastics.

#4 – Team Status In the Gym

To some degree, gym owners can positively or negatively affect the confidence of their team’s gymnasts. The status of the team and the members of the team in the gym is communicated rather effectively, either in a negative or a positive manner. While gymnastics teams may not be the source of the biggest profit for a gym, team member’s confidence may be directly affected by gym decisions such as:

Equipment priority – How much equipment and area of the gym is available for team use during their practice times? Does the team have all of the latest training equipment and stations to allow them equal training footing with the other gymnasts against whom they compete?

Team visibility in the gym – Are team pictures or posters, meet results, trophies, awards and other visible evidence of team status posted prominently in the gym? Do they have a team V.I.P. status in the gym?

Training time – Are team gymnasts given the maximum amount of training time that is competitively necessary and beneficial for their success or is less time given with financial or other reasons used as an excuse.

#5 – One on One Time with Gymnasts

Parents should make sure that they spend one on one time with their gymnast – even if they have several children that are involved in several sports – they each deserve and need one on one time. This makes the child feel valued by the parent (s). This is an important concept in the gym, for coaches and trainers to give their gymnasts one on one time so that the same type respect and valued relationship that parents are conveying is also felt in the gym.

#6 – Training Team Members/Classmates to Build Up the Confidence of Their Teammates

Coaches and instructors should “coach” all gymnasts in the importance of positive reinforcement. Each team member or classmate should always get up, greet, congratulate, celebrate and occasionally commiserate with other gymnasts. They can do this in their own way with high fives, hugs, hand shakes … but do to it consistently with everyone all of the time. This is common practice with collegiate teams but rare in age group gymnastics programs. The repetition of this reinforcement during performances, meets, and practice is a huge confidence builder.

#7 – Team Building

There is a team building exercise where the members of a team or class pass around a sheet of paper, with each gymnast’s name on it, and write down something that they appreciate about that person. Usually, that is done once, or perhaps twice a year. The positive effects of this practice can be life altering and life-long. In one story about an elementary school teacher who had her students do this, she was surprised, at her retirement, of the stories about how much this had affected her student’s lives.

Imagine what could be done if coaches/instructors and gymnasts were to verbally do that same thing – tell their teammates/classmates what they appreciate about them or what they have done – each and every day in practice. Soaring confidence might be just one of the major results. Require your gymnasts to do it for one month, check after each practice to see that everyone did it, and it will become a year-round habit that will work wonders for gymnast confidence, team bonding and unity.

#8 – The Gym Where Everyone Knows Your Name

This should apply to every gymnast (and parent) in your gym program, but coaches, instructors and staff members must know the name of every gymnast they work with. At the team level, coaches should know the gymnast’s first and last name, their nickname, both their parent’s names, etc. When kids are shown the respect of coaches and adults learning their names, their image of themselves improves and so does their confidence.

#9 – Coaches/Instructors Must Pay Attention and Show an Interest in Their Gymnast’s Life Outside the Gym

The smart coach/instructor will ask gymnasts about their family, their friends and their other interests and activities. Even more importantly, they will listen carefully and show gymnasts that they care enough to remember what gymnasts have talked about and what is important to them. Gymnasts who feel they are important enough for coaches to take interest in as a person and not just as a gymnast are more confident.

#10 – Catch Your Gymnasts Doing Something Right

Positive coaching is not just a scientifically valid training system, it is a system for developing great gymnasts. Behaviors that are reinforced (praised) tend to be repeated. By reinforcing behaviors, skills, traits, attitudes and other positive characteristics in gymnasts, gymnasts will repeat those behaviors – and they will be the gymnasts you want them to be.

Criticism is more popular, as a coaching pattern, because it seems to deliver good results and improvements quickly. But it only works in the short-term. Over a longer period of time, the negative tone of criticism tilts the balance of the subconscious in a more negative direction, which can only result in a less confident gymnast. All negative communication from coaches, gymnasts and parents, whether verbal or non-verbal, has some degree of negative impact on gymnasts. Criticism, which is by definition, a predominantly negative communication format, has to have a noticeable negative impact on a gymnast’s confidence, when used over and over again for years.

#11 – Positive Coaching

In the long run, real gymnastics confidence is best built by positive reinforcement. Positive conditioning is well-researched, well proven psychological tool for modifying athletes’ behavior in a specific direction. It is, unfortunately, easier and more common for coaches/instructors to point out gymnasts’ mistakes. It should be just as easy for coaches/instructors to see what gymnasts are doing right. By praising gymnasts, coaches/instructors are able to select those things about their gymnastic habits and performance that you want them to keep and build upon.

Coaching in a positive manner and building up gymnasts by praising what they do well, recognizing when they make a good effort, rewarding their good behavior and complimenting their good performances builds their confidence. If coaches spend more time catching and acknowledging what gymnasts do right, they will find gymnasts make even faster progress and have more confidence.

#12 – Freedom to Make Mistakes

Negative coaching puts too much emphasis on gymnasts trying to avoid making errors or mistakes. This can cause gymnasts to become frozen in one spot – afraid to move for fear of making some unknown mistake and then being severely criticized for it.

Gymnasts need to know they are allowed to make mistakes and that making mistakes is a normal part of the learning process. Of course, gymnasts need to avoid making the same mistake over and over again. But progress can only result from change and gymnasts must feel free to make changes (and sometimes mistakes) so they can progress in the sport.

#13 – Understanding Their True Place in the World and In the Sport

Team gymnasts are the best gymnasts in their own gym and the best gymnasts in the sport. The best gymnasts in the world are on a gymnastics team somewhere. Just by virtue of having made the team or being chosen to be on the team, puts team gymnasts in the top one percent of gymnasts. Coaches should make sure their gymnasts understand how special they are, just to be talented enough to make the team. Any further gymnastics awards and accolades they win, just makes them that much more special. Knowing their true position in the sport should give team gymnasts confidence.

#14 – Coaches Who Accept Responsibility

Coaches who take responsibility for their gymnasts’ performance – and for the program that has produced them, are more highly respected and have more successful programs. Placing blame by calling gymnasts lazy after a performance that isn’t quite up to par or problems that arise in the gym is wrong and bad.

All programs have sub-par performances – as do individual gymnasts – no one or no program is perfect. But the character of a coach who would pin blame of any sort of his gymnasts is just asking for trouble. This loses the coach/instructor any respect from the gymnasts that he may have earned and dashes their trust in him as someone who supports them emotionally. In addition, this type of behavior from their “leader” totally deflates their confidence in themselves, their group and the program that they belong to.

#15 – Positive Expectations

Psychological experimentation has proven that young children will rise (or fall) to the level of expectations of their instructors and coaches. Gymnasts are no different than the young children in the noted psychological experimentation. Prejudging gymnasts’ abilities or chances of success in any negative way, will result in gymnasts living down to those lower expectations.


About the Author:

After studying graphic design at the University of Georgia, Jill held several positions in media and marketing including Art Director, Editor and Marketing Director. As a student of dance, she has spent plenty of time in children’s activity centers and puts that experience to work for her in the work she does with Jackrabbit. In addition to her interest in dance, Jill also enjoys sports, gourmet cooking, entertaining, singing and spoiling her five grandchildren.


  1. Carol McGarity December 2, 2016 at 2:43 PM - Reply

    This is a great article! Thank you! Is there anyway to email to staff? I would to send it to all my coaches. Or copy it so we can add it to our website.

    • mm
      Jill Purdy July 21, 2017 at 12:05 AM - Reply

      You can always copy the URL and share that in an email to staff@ or however you email your team. If you’d like to share hard copies, it’s fine to print out and copy it. We’re glad you find the information helpful.

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