You are on page 1of 18

ORIGINAL RESEARCH

Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, 2008, 2, 299-316 2008 Human Kinetics, Inc.

Worries and Fears Associated With Competitive Gymnastics


Scott B. Martin
University of North Texas

Christy M. Polster
CartWheels Academy

Allen W. Jackson, Christy A. Greenleaf, and Gretchen M. Jones


University of North Texas
The purpose of this investigation was to explore the frequency and intensity of worries and fears associated with competitive gymnastics. These issues were initially examined in a sample of 7 female college gymnasts using a semistructured guided interview. From the themes that emerged and relevant literature, a survey including parallel intensity and frequency of worry questions was administered to 120 female gymnasts competing in USA Gymnastics sanctioned events. Results indicated that even though gymnasts worry about attempting and performing skills on the balance beam and uneven bars, more of them experienced a greater number of injuries on the floor exercise. Analysis of covariance for intensity and frequency using age as the covariate revealed that advanced gymnasts had more intense worries about body changes and performing skills and more frequent worries about body changes than less skilled gymnasts (p < .05). Advanced gymnasts also reported using more strategies to modify their worries than did less skilled gymnasts. Keywords: worries, fear,

gymnastics, sport

Anxiety and fear responses are normal human emotional reactions and necessary for physical survival. Anxiety is a state of worry and apprehensive anticipation of future danger or misfortune accompanied by a feeling of dysphoria or somatic symptoms of tension that often occurs in the absence of real or obvious danger (American Psychiatric Association, APA, 2000). A cognitive appraisal of threat is a prerequisite for the experience of this emotion (Lazarus, 1991, 2000). Fear is similar to anxiety except that fear usually represents an emotional reaction to an identifiable eliciting or threatening stimulus (Barlow, 2002; Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 2005). Many fears are adaptive responses to relevant danger or threats

Scott Martin, Allen Jackson, and Christy Greenleaf are with the Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion, and Recreation and Gretchen Jones is with the Department of Psychology, all at the University of North Texas in Denton. E-mail: Scott.Martin@unt.edu. Christy Polster is with CartWheels Academy in Powhatan, VA.

299

300 Martin et al.

(rational fears), whereas others are excessive or disproportionate (irrational fears), given the objective danger of the situation. In some dangerous situations, the emotion of fear mobilizes a person physically and cognitively for quick action, which occasionally results in superhuman efforts whereas in other dangerous instances these same actions are counterproductive (Barlow, 2002; Beck et al., 2005). When individuals acquire a fear, they tend to avoid the fear-producing object and thus will experience a reduction in anxiety (i.e., they learn to avoid the feared object). The various anxiety-provoking factors mentioned in research literature regarding sport and recreational activities has been classified into four global fear domains: (a) fear of social evaluation, (b) fear of failure or inferior performance, (c) fear of injury (or reinjury), and (d) fear of the unknown (Dunn, 1999; Mesagno, 2006; Silva, 1994). Athletes may fear failure and evaluation above all else because they are concerned about not playing up to their potential ability or appearing incompetent (Dunn, 1999; Mesagno, 2006). If athletes fear failure or inferior performance, they may engage in defensive tactics to decrease the likelihood that a failure could be attributed to their lack of competence or ability (Conroy, Poczwardowski, & Henschen, 2001). They may also be prone to making excuses such as having bad luck, being too tired, being sick, or they might minimize the importance of the particular skill, activity, or event (Harris, Snyder, Higgins, & Schrag, 1986). Fears may decrease over time as a result of desensitization and positive experiences, as well as increased confidence in performing the skill or completing the task (Cartoni, Minganti, & Zelli, 2005). On the other hand, fears may intensify because of the increase in skills required for and difficulty associated with consistently and continually performing at a high level. Athletes fears may lead to aversive consequences, such as choking under pressure, experiencing shame and embarrassment, devaluing oneself, having an uncertain future, losing social influence, and upsetting important others (see Mesagno, 2006). Whether the fears increase or decrease in intensity, frequency, and duration may be a result of individual differences in fear acquisition and the skills and elements involved in the sport or activity. Recently, there has been an increased interest in examining the degree to which athletes experience competitive anxiety and fear before, during, and following their sport performance. Several of these studies examine worries and fears that athletes experience while performing a particular sport or skill (e.g., Cartoni et al., 2005; Chase, Magyar, & Drake, 2005; Cottyn, De Clercq, Pannier, Crombez, & Lenoir, 2006; Dunn & Syrotuik, 2003; Smith et al., 2003). One sport often mentioned when discussing worries and fears is gymnastics (e.g., Chase et al., 2005). Gymnastics is a competitive sport that tests athletes strength, rhythm, flexibility, and ability and necessitates a very high level of commitment and dedication to achieve competitive success (Cogan, 2006). Female artistic gymnasts compete in four events (i.e., balance beam, floor exercise, uneven bars, and vault) whereas male artistic gymnasts compete in six events (i.e., floor exercise, horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings, and vault). More females than males participate in gymnastics in the United States with many starting at an early age (as young as 4 or 5 years old) and training for several hours each day (USA Gymnastics National Womens Program Committee, USAG NWPC, 2005a). The increases in difficulty of skill and practice time required generally occur earlier for female gymnasts than for male gymnasts (Georgopoulos, Theodoropoulou,

Worries and Fears in Gymnastics 301

Leglise, Vagenakis, & Markou, 2004). Womens gymnastics in the United States ranges from level 1 (representing the lowest skill level) to level 10 (representing the highest level; see USA Gymnastics National Womens Program Committee, 2005b). The levels are divided into three major segments: (a) development levels 14, (b) compulsory levels 5 and 6, and (c) optional levels 710. Developmental levels 1 through 4 are part of a noncompetitive and achievement-oriented program for use within a gyms preteam program or as an introductory/recreational competitive program. Compulsory levels 5 and 6 are progressive in nature, building upon the skills required at the previous level. Optional levels 710 are separated into two groups. While levels 7 and 8 have difficulty restrictions that require gymnasts to do the same routine as a way to build and show strength and flexibility, gymnasts at levels 9 and 10 have no restrictions in the skill choice, which allows them to showcase specific skills. Athletes achieving a skill level of level 10 or beyond (e.g., college, national, or Olympic level) are considered to be elite. Given the early age of commitment that is required for success and the intense training process involved, many gymnasts experience stress and anxiety and possibly some forms of fear during their pursuit of elite status (Cartoni et al., 2005; Chase et al., 2005; Duda, 1995). Anecdotal reports and research involving female gymnasts worries and fears indicate that fear of social evaluation and fear of injury (or reinjury) are prevalent given the high-risk elements involved in the sport (e.g., Arnold, 1999; Cartoni et al., 2005; Chase et al., 2005; Duda, 1995; Johns, 1985). These worries and fears may cause some gymnasts to retire early from the sport (Cartoni et al.; Chase et al., 2005; Duda, 1995; Duda & Gano-Overway, 1997; Weiss, Wiese, & Klint, 1989). Anxious feelings regarding injury may be justified since the risk of injury is higher in gymnastics in club, high school, and college sports than in many other sports (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, CDCP, 2005; National College Athletic Association, NCAA, 2002). Consequently, gymnasts not only worry about getting injured, they also report concerns about performing certain skills, some of which are basic to the event (e.g., doing a back handspring on the balance beam or a flyaway off the high bar; see Chase et al., 2005; Duda, 1995; Ryan, 2000). Gymnasts cognitive interpretation of a situation or specific skill can cause fear if the perceived demand surpasses their perceived abilities (Duda, 1995). Other fears that gymnasts may experience are associated with being outperformed by younger gymnasts who are better and growing older or experiencing changes in size and shape (Johns, 1985; Ryan, 2000). Sports that involve judging may exacerbate this concern about aging and changing body size and shape (NCAA, 2002). The drive for thinness may be higher in female gymnastics than in other female sports (Johnson, Powers, & Dick, 1999). This drive for thinness may derive from athletes interest in prolonging their gymnastics careers by slowing the aging and body maturing process. Many gymnasts struggle with disordered eating behaviors (Petrie, 1993). Social physique anxiety, emphasis on weight, group weigh-ins, social comparison, and coaches and parents comments about weight may influence gymnasts desire to be thin and exacerbate their bulimic tendencies (Cogan, 2006; Ryan, 2000). Regardless of their sources, worries and fears have the potential to increase heart rate and bodily tension and to disrupt attention, which may hinder performance and increase the risk of injury and onset of health-related problems

302 Martin et al.

(Bandura, 1997; Johnson et al., 1999). Past research in gymnastics has not thoroughly examined the frequency and intensity of worries associated with competitive gymnastics at various competition levels. The purpose of this research investigation was to examine the worries and fears experienced by gymnasts and the psychological strategies employed to manage or overcome them. Understanding the anxious apprehensions and fears that gymnasts experience may help develop better strategies and interventions that promote safer and healthier gymnastics training and competitive environments while mitigating unnecessary negative incidents. Two separate studies were conducted to examine gymnasts worries and fears. The purpose of the first study was to explore gymnasts past experiences associated with gymnastics using an interview guide to determine the most prominent fear themes. The purpose of the second study was to survey a larger sample of female gymnasts to determine how intense and frequent they experience worries and fears. In addition, the second study was conducted to determine the types of strategies most useful to manage worries and fears. Based on the previous literature and relevant research, it is anticipated that the higher competitive level gymnasts have a greater number of strategies to combat their worries and fears.

Study 1
Method
Participants. Participants were 7 Caucasian female college gymnasts ranging from 17 to 21 years of age. All were from a top national college gymnastics team. They had all competed on private gymnastic teams in the United States since 5 years of age, with an average of 12 years of training (s = 1.26). All of the gymnasts had competed at USA Gymnastic (USAG) levels 7 through 10 (see USAG NWPC, 2005a). They all had experienced some form of injury and had received some general knowledge about sport psychology and mental training during their years involved in gymnastics. Participation was voluntary and written informed consent was obtained from each individual before beginning the study. Semistructured Guided Interview. Existing inventory content from previous sport psychology studies (Conroy et al., 2001; Dunn, 1999) was used in an attempt to develop appropriate questions and to provide ideas for format and organization (see Patton, 2002). From this information, a standardized open-ended semistructured interview guide was pilot tested on three former female gymnasts (i.e., two were part of the research team and the other was a college gymnastics coach). The final version included questions regarding (a) the nature and demands of gymnastics, (b) best performance, (c) worst performance, (d) a word association task (i.e., happiness, sadness, hope, anger, anxiety, fear, and pride), and (e) goals for the upcoming seasons. Although the word association section directly requested information about anxiety and fear, the other sections also provided an opening to discuss these reactions. Procedures. Permission to conduct the preliminary study was obtained from the institutional review board. Before the competitive season, permission from the head coach was received and athletes volunteered to participate. Of the 16 college

Worries and Fears in Gymnastics 303

gymnasts who volunteered, 7 were randomly selected to be interviewed. Trained interviewers talked to the gymnasts in separate rooms during the same time frame (i.e., only one interviewer and one gymnast were present in each room). Written and verbal permission to audiotape the interview was obtained before the session. Each interview lasted 2060 minutes. Participants were asked the identical series of questions about their past experience competing in USAG with a priori probing rules to ensure that responses were equivalent in detail. Following the interview, the gymnasts were debriefed, and each audiotape was transcribed. The participant responses were then analyzed using procedures recommended by Patton (2002). The analysis involved two main steps. First, the raw data themes were identified from specific quotes or paraphrased quotes. Second, the data themes were organized into interpretable and meaningful higher order themes by inductive and deductive procedures. A team of coders (N = 8) came to consensus, establishing strong levels of intercoder reliability for raw data and higher order themes ( > 0.81 for all pairs of codes).

Results
Information about worries and fears about past experiences training and competing for USAG competitions came primarily from the nature and demands of gymnastics, worst performances, and the word association (anxiety and fear) sections. During the 4 hr and 15 minutes of transcribed interviews from the 7 gymnasts, the following primary domains were identified: (a) fear of a specific skill and events (n = 37), (b) fear of incompetence (n = 30), (c) fear of injury (n = 16), and (d) fear of body shape and size changes (n = 13). The themes that emerged and a sample of the quotes are provided in Table 1.

Study 2
Method
Participants. The participants in study 2 were 120 female gymnasts in competitive USAG levels 510 from private clubs located in the northeastern United States. All gymnasts and their parents (for those under 18) completed consent forms before the administration of the instrument to the gymnasts. The gymnasts ranged from 10 to 23 years of age (M = 14.38, SD = 2.26) and had one or more years of competitive experience at a sanctioned USAG competition (M = 5.12, SD = 2.20) as well as 2.513 years of gymnastics experience (M = 7.74, SD = 2.31). They spent 36 days per week in the gym practicing (M = 4.22, SD = .68), which resulted in an average of 17 hours of practice time per week (SD = 3.96). Instrument. The participants completed demographic and background questions

and parallel frequency and intensity of worry survey items. The survey was based on past literature and the interviews conducted in the first study. Thus, the survey is comprised of four sections. The first section contained 8 demographic questions pertaining to the athletes gender, age, and academic grade level, years of gymnastics experience, years of USAG competitive experience, USAG competitive level,

304

Table 1 Themes that Emerged From Interviews


Sample Quotes

Themes

Fear of specific skills and events

Beam scares me. Fear of jumping to the high bar. Fear of doing a back handspring on the beam. Fear that my hands will not come in contact with the bars. When youre learning a new skill, and like you have never done it and you are not sure what is going to happen. What if I miss my hand, or what if I dont turn at the right time? I am afraid Ill fall off, you know its not fun ....

Fear of incompetence

Fear that hes [coach] not satisfied with what Im doing that Im not putting out enough or that Ill be cut from the team. Fear of getting yelled at. Fear of disappointing somebody, I dont want to disappoint anybody.

Fear of injury (or reinjury)

Hope that I dont get injured this year since its my last year and my last chance. Injury is inevitable and in a lot of cases it is something that just jumps out at you and you dont even know it is coming.

Fear of body shape and size changes

Were worried that when we stop its all going to turn to fat because were not going to be working out. I think most all of us started before we were 10, you are involved in gymnastics since puberty and your body changes. Depending on your body type, your technique might change if you are taller or shorter. Then, when you are in college, your body changes again. Its just that we know were going to be in wheel chairs by the time were probably about 60.

Worries and Fears in Gymnastics 305

training days per week, and training hours per week. Thirty matched frequency and intensity survey items made up sections two and three. In section two, respondents answered the survey items using a 5-point rating scale that ranged from 1 (not at all worried) to 5 (extremely worried), while in section three, they rated the frequency of these negative thoughts on a 5-point scale that ranged from 1 (never) to 5 (always). Thus, the same survey items were used in both sections, though the focus of section two was on the intensity of gymnasts worries and fears, whereas the focus in section three was on the frequency of gymnasts worries and fears. The fourth and final section contained (a) a rank order item related to most feared event or apparatus, using a 4-point scale that ranged from 1 (least feared) to 4 (most feared); (b) questions about the number of injuries on each event or apparatus, the skill or trick being performed, and the length of rehabilitation time; and (c) an open-ended question about the mental strategies used to overcome worries and fears.
Procedure. Following IRB approval, coaches were contacted to arrange times to request volunteers for the study. The gymnasts, parents, and coaches were informed about the nature of the study and consent was received. The survey was then administered to the gymnasts by one of the researchers during a mutually agreed upon time. The gymnasts were encouraged to answer the questions as open and honestly as possible. They were also instructed that their responses should be kept strictly to their feelings and thoughts associated with their gymnastics experience. The athletes were assured that their responses would be kept confidential and that only aggregate results would be disseminated. The survey was readministered to 23 gymnasts who volunteered to complete it a second time 2 weeks later. These gymnasts completed the survey in a similar fashion to the first time. For data analyses, the gymnasts were separated into three groups based on the descriptions and requirements of the levels: (a) USAG levels 5 and 6, (b) USAG levels 7 and 8, and (c) USAG levels 9 and 10 (see USAG NWPC, 2005a, 2005b, 2005c). Mean response scores for each gymnast were generated for the four types of fear (i.e., fear of incompetence, fear of a specific skill or event, fear of injury, and fear of body shape and size changes) for both intensity level and frequency. Mean and median rankings of the most feared apparatus or event and the frequency of injuries on each apparatus or event were tabulated. Finally, the psychological strategies used to manage and overcome worries and fears were examined to determine if any commonalities existed.

Results
Reliability Estimates and Pearson Product-Moment Correlations. Adminis-

tration of the survey to a subgroup of gymnasts (n = 23) from the overall sample (N = 120) 2 weeks later produced reliabilities of 0.760.96 with a median of 0.85 (see Table 2). Based on the responses to the survey instrument from the overall sample, the coefficient alphas for the survey items that represented similar facets ranged from 0.780.85 with a median of 0.80 (see Table 2). The confidence intervals around the internal consistency estimates were above the conventional minimum values for research (Nunnally & Bernstein, 1994). In addition, based on the 120 gymnasts, the Pearson product-moment matrix provided in Table 2 indicated

306

Table 2 Internal Consistency and Test-Retest Reliability of and Pearson Moment Correlation Between the Types of Fears Indentified
Intensity of Worries/Fears Body Changes Injury Injury 0.239 ** 0.758 ** 0.356 ** 0.328 ** 0.337** 1 0.165 0.480 ** 0.282 ** 0.562 ** 0.293 ** 0.547 ** 0.837 ** 0.201 ** 0.381 ** 0.492 ** Skills or Events Social Evaluation Body Changes Frequency of Worries/Fears Skills or Events 0.328 ** 0.293 ** 0.645 ** 0.516 ** 0.404 ** 0.416 ** Social Evaluation 0.578 ** 0.217 * 0.421 ** 0.783 ** 0.632 ** 0.362 ** 0.657 ** 1

Reliability

Types of Worries/ Fears

Test- Cronbachs Retest (n = 23) (N = 120)

Intensity Body Changes Injury Skills or Events Incompetence Frequency Body Changes Injury Skills or Events Incompetence

0.87 0.91 0.91 0.96

0.80 0.78 0.85 0.79

0.79 0.83 0.76 0.78

0.80 0.80 0.80 0.78

* p < .05. ** p < .01.

Worries and Fears in Gymnastics 307

that a strong relationship exists between the intensity and frequency of the same emotion and that some of these emotions appear to be related. For example, social evaluation and body changes seem to be highly related. Likewise, social evaluation and performance on skills or events appear to be highly related.
Intensity of Worries and Fears. The descriptive statistics for the individual items related to intensity indicated that the gymnasts experienced more intense worries associated with trying a new skill for the first time, performing skills on the balance beam, becoming injured, and performing skills on the uneven bars. A threegroup (i.e., USAG levels 5 and 6, levels 7 and 8, and levels 9 and 10) analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) using the mean responses to intensity of the four types of fear as the dependent variables with age as the covariate indicated a significant effect for groups, Wilks Lambda = 0.75, F(8, 206) = 4.00, p = .001, p2 = 0.13. The follow-up univariate test revealed that worries about certain skills and body changes were significant, F(2, 106) = 7.07, p = .001, p2 = 0.12 and F(2, 106) = 10.53, p = .001, p2 = 0.17, respectively. The standardized discriminant function coefficients were 0.71 and 0.88, respectively. The advanced athletes (USGA levels 9 and 10) had more intense worries about certain skills and body changes than the less skilled groups (see Table 3). Frequency of Worries and Fears. The descriptive statistics for the individual items related to intensity indicated that the gymnasts experienced more frequent negative thoughts associated with trying a new skill for the first time, performing under pressure, performing skills on the balance beam, and performing skills on the uneven bars. An ANCOVA using the mean responses to the frequency of the four types of fear as the dependent variables with age as the covariate revealed a significant effect for groups, Wilks Lambda = 0.83, F(8, 198) = 2.37, p = .018, p 2 = 0.09. The follow-up univariate test revealed that worries about body shape and size changes was significant, F(2, 102) = 5.86, p = .004, p2 = 0.10. The standardized discriminant function coefficient was 1.15. The more advanced gymnasts (USAG levels 9 and 10) had a greater frequency of worries about body changes than the other two groups (see Table 3). Most Worrisome or Fearful Events. The gymnasts were also asked to rank order

the four events (i.e., balance beam, floor exercise, uneven bars, and vault,) based on their level of fear, ranging from 1 (least feared) to 4 (most feared). Regardless of USAG level, they were most fearful of performing on the balance beam and uneven bars (see Table 4). There was a slight correlation (r = 0.24, p < .01) between USAG level and ranking of worries about the uneven bars. Numerous skills were listed that evoked negative thoughts. The most common skills listed for level 5 and 6 gymnasts were flyaways, back tucks, and cartwheels. For level 7 and 8 gymnasts, the most common skills producing negative thoughts were flyaways, giants, layouts, and back handsprings (flic-flac). For level 9 and 10 gymnasts, the most common skills that resulted in negative thoughts were double front and double back. for one indicated that they had experienced an injury sometime during their gymnastics career. In addition, they were asked to indicate the number of injuries they had experienced on each event that had resulted in their being unable to practice

Events and Skills That Caused the Most Injuries. All of the gymnasts except

308

Table 3 Descriptive Statistics of the Intensity and Frequency of Worries and Fears by USAG Group Levels
Group 1 (Levels 5 & 6) (n = 24) M 1.66a 2.70 a 2.38 a 2.08 a 1.65 a 2.58 a 2.50 a 1.96 a 0.55 0.96 0.56 0.42 1.96 a 2.67 a 2.59 a 2.21 a 0.66 1.12 0.55 0.60 2.54 b 2.93 a 2.92 a 2.39 a 0.50 0.94 0.36 0.44 1.67 a 2.65 a 2.30 a 2.09 a 0.47 0.98 0.57 0.61 2.40 b 2.72 a 2.93 b 2.36 a 0.72 1.11 0.74 0.63 0.73 0.99 0.71 0.65 SD M SD M SD M 1.92 2.68 2.53 2.18 2.11 2.75 2.69 2.23 Group 2 (Levels 7 & 8) (n = 56) Group 3 (Levels 9 & 10) (n = 40) Total (Levels 5-10) (N = 120) SD 0.66 1.01 0.67 0.60 0.74 1.05 0.63 0.60

Types of Worries/Fears

Intensity Body changes Injury Skills or events Incompetence Frequency Body changes Injury Skills or events Incompetence

Note. Means in the same row that do not share subscripts differ at p < .05 in the Tukey honestly significant difference comparison.

Table 4 Descriptive Statistics of the Events of Most Concern and Injuries on Events
Group 2 (Levels 7 & 8) (n = 56) Mdn M SD Mdn M SD Mdn M Group 3 (Levels 9 & 10) (n = 40) Total (Levels 510) (N = 120) SD

Group 1 (Levels 5 & 6) (n = 24)

Mdn

SD

Events of Most Concern Balance Beam Floor Exercise Uneven Bars Vault Injuries on Events Balance Beam 2.50 2.00 2.00 1.00 3.00 4.00 3.00 3.00 (n = 13) (n = 12) 2.46 1.20 (n = 23) 2.58 1.51 4.00 3.00 (n = 13) 3.39 1.03 4.00 2.54 1.27 3.00 2.58 (n = 19) 3.50 (n = 24) 3.22 (n = 18) 2.76 (n = 17) 1.39 0.83 1.22 1.30 2.57 1.93 2.25 1.52 0.91 0.91 0.90 0.76 2.00 3.00 3.00 2.00 2.62 1.79 2.76 2.04 0.81 0.78 1.05 0.96

2.00 1.00 2.00 2.00

2.29 1.46 2.29 1.96

0.96 0.66 0.96 0.75

3.00 2.00 2.00 2.00 2.00 4.00 4.00 3.00

2.53 1.79 2.43 1.78 2.42 (n = 36) 3.48 (n = 54) 2.97 (n = 38) 2.60 (n = 35)

0.88 0.83 0.98 0.86 0.83 0.89 1.35 1.27

1.00

1.25

0.50

Floor Exercise

4.00

(n = 4) 3.71

0.49

Uneven Bars

4.00

(n = 7) 3.00

1.41

Vault

2.00

(n = 8) 2.40

1.52

(n = 5)

309

310 Martin et al.

for longer than a week. Overall, more gymnasts (n = 54) experienced injuries on the floor exercise than on the other three events, and they also had a greater number of injuries during the floor exercise (M = 3.48, SD = .89) than during other events (see Table 4). Most (40 of 49, or 82%) of the gymnasts who experienced injuries that lasted longer than 1 week were able to return to practice within a month. Most of the others (8 of 9, or 89%) indicated that they had reoccurring overuse injuries that had forced them to miss more than 1 month of training.
Mental Strategies Used to Overcome Worries and Fears. All but 4 of the gym-

nasts sampled provided examples of strategies they employed to manage or overcome their anxieties and fears (see Table 5). Two researchers with experience in content analysis examined the 126 examples, which resulted in seven basic strategies: (a) breathing control, (b) counting to three to initiate a movement, (c) using imagery, (d) developing performance routines, (e) praying, (f) using positive selftalk, and (g) relying on support from others. The higher level USAG gymnasts (USAG levels 9 and 10; n = 40) indicated that they used mental strategies such as imagery (29.7%), self-talk (26.3%), breathing control (19.3%), and performance routines (8.8%) to overcome their worries and fears. Conversely, the lower level USAG gymnasts (USAG levels 5 and 6; n = 24) indicated that they used these mental strategies less often and relied more on support from others (19.0%) and counting to three (19.0%) on regular basis to overcome their worries and fears.

Discussion, Implications, and Conclusions


Worries and fear are complex phenomena; the complexity is manifested with them being multifaceted and multileveled. The current investigation explored female gymnasts worries and fears to determine if any commonalities or differences existed as a function of the sport and competitive level. Gymnasts, like other athletes and people in general, make cognitive appraisals of situations, which include determining the expected demands, judgments about whether they have the abilities to meet the demands, and what the consequences might be if they do not meet those demands (Duda & Gano-Overway, 1997, Lazarus, 2000). Gymnasts in the current investigation were primarily worried about being viewed as incompetent, being able to perform skills and events, experiencing body size and shape changes, and suffering injuries. These findings are consistent with previous research and anecdotal reports on gymnastics (e.g., Cartoni et al., 2005; Chase et al., 2005; Duda & Gano-Overway, 1997). In the first study, some of the quotes overlapped two previously identified fear domains (e.g., fear of failure and fear of social evaluation; fear of learning a skill and fear of the unknown). Gymnasts fear of failure and fear of social evaluation were conceptualized as part of a larger psychological phenomenon associated with a desire to maintain a favorable level of social comparison, as well as wanting to maintain their own self-competence. Negative sport images (e.g., minor error on the beam) may cause them to worry about being viewed as unskilled, incompetent, ill-prepared, unfit, or unable to handle pressures, which influenced their overall views about performing. This finding is consistent with other research indicating that worries about performance failure and negative social evaluation are somewhat related (e.g., Dunn, 1999). In the second study, the gymnasts

Table 5 Coping Strategies Used to Overcome Fear Associated With Performing in Gymnastics
Group 1 USAG Levels 5 & 6 (n = 24) 3 13.6% 14.4% 2.4% 4 30.8% 19.0% 3.2% 5 13.8% 23.8% 3.9% 0 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 1 11.1% 4.8% 0.8% 4 14.8% 19.0% 3.2% 4 36.5% 19.0% 3.2% 21 16.7% 100% 16.2% Group 2 USAG Levels 7 & 8 (n = 56) 8 36.4% 16.7% 6.3% 4 30.8% 8.3% 3.2% 14 38.9% 29.2% 11.1% 3 37.5% 6.3% 2.4% 5 55.6% 10.4% 3.9% 8 29.6% 16.7% 6.3% 6 54.5% 12.5% 4.7% 48 38.1% 100% 40.0% Group 3 USAG Levels 9 & 10 (n = 40) 11 50.0% 19.3% 8.7% 5 38.4% 8.8% 3.9% 17 47.2% 29.7% 13.5% 5 62.5% 8.8% 3.9% 3 33.3% 5.3% 2.4% 15 55.5% 26.3% 11.9% 1 9.0% 1.8% 0.8% 57 45.2% 100% 43.8% 22 100% 17.5% 17.5% 13 100% 10.3% 10.3% 36 100% 28.6% 28.6% 8 100% 6.3% 6.3% 9 100% 7.1% 7.1% 27 100% 21.4% 21.4% 11 100% 8.7% 8.7% 126 100% 100% 100% Total

Coping strategy Breathing control % within breathing % within groups by levels % of Total Counting to three % within counting to three % within groups by levels % of Total Imagery % within imagery % within groups by levels % of Total Performance routines % within routines % within groups by levels % of Total Prayer % within prayer % within groups by levels % of Total Self-talk % within self-talk % within groups by levels % of Total Support from others % within support from others % within groups by levels % of Total Total % within total % within groups by levels % of Total

311

312 Martin et al.

reported that they were occasionally (i.e., frequency) and somewhat (i.e., intensity) worried about how judges and their coaches, parents, and teammates viewed their performance, whether during practice or competition. The advanced gymnasts also had more intense worries about certain skills than less skilled athletes. This may occur because the advanced gymnasts perform more difficult skills and routines. The intensity and frequency of worries associated with incompetence appears to be highly related to the intensity and frequency of worries about specific skills or events. Gymnasts in both studies indicated that their worries and fears often cause mental blocks before or during the execution of movements. They worried about skills or events they were not ready to perform because they might let their coach or teammates down. For instance, many gymnasts believe that chickening out before a trick is an unforgivable sin that will infuriate their coach (Ryan, 2000). The events the gymnasts were most worried about were the balance beam and uneven bars. These worries may be natural responses due to the nature of the events. The balance beam is 10 cm narrow and 125 cm off the ground, and the uneven bars are 166 cm 1 cm and 246 cm 1 cm off the ground, whereas the floor exercise is performed on a 12 m-by-12 m-wide padded surface on the floor (see USAG NWPC, 2005c). Some of the more difficult skills performed involve blind turns or changes in motions or blind releases. Slight misses on the balance beam or uneven bars with the feet or hands are viewed as more distressing because of the distance to the floor. There can also be minor differences between equipment (balance beam, uneven bars, and vault), depending on the manufacturer, meaning that even slight differences in the amount of padding covering the balance beam or the material used to cover it can cause point-deducting bobbles. As reported in this investigation, more injuries may occur on the floor exercise because gymnasts may take greater risks on skills performed on the floor (Caine & Nassar, 2005; Goldstein, Berger, Windler, & Jackson, 1991; Meeusen, & Borms, 1992). As gymnasts progress through various competition levels, the physical demands and skill difficulty increase resulting in a higher risk of injury (such as overuse and traumatic injuries; see Chase et al., 2005). Gymnasts may learn to work through pain and ignore it for fear of being viewed incompetent (e.g., getting ridiculed or receiving negative feedback from their coach or others). Many coaches in gymnastics reinforce the mind-set that if it is not bleeding, do not worry about it (see Ryan, 2000). Female gymnasts experience higher injury rates than male gymnasts (CDCP, 2005; NCAA, 2002). Factors associated with increased injury risks among female gymnasts include increases in body size and body fat, periods of rapid growth, training more than 16 hours per week, and increased life stress (Caine & Nassar, 2005; Goldstein et al., 1991; Petrie, 1993). Gymnasts in the present investigation also reported being somewhat worried about body size and shape changes. Past research (see Georgopoulos et al., 2004) indicates that advanced gymnasts, even when controlling for age, were more likely to worry about their body size and shape changes than less skilled gymnast. In female gymnastics, maximum training may coincide with the period of pubertal development, whereas in male gymnastics, most of the efforts are required toward the end of puberty because of the upper body strength required to perform various skills (Georgopoulos et al., 2004). Thus, the emphasis on low body weight and a lean physique in conjunction with the rigorous training schedules at a very early

Worries and Fears in Gymnastics 313

age may place female gymnasts at risk for the female triad (i.e., combination of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis; see American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP, 2002; Petrie, 1993). In addition to recognizing the signs and symptoms of the female triad, coaches and parents need to help gymnasts deemphasize weight as much as possible in an attempt to eliminate unhealthy beliefs and behaviors before they start (Cogan, 2006). Certain worries and fears are expected in most sport settings especially as skill and competition levels increase and may be beneficial if rational. How athletes interpret and respond to worries and fears often determines their performance. Gymnasts in the first study believed their worries could be overcome with experience and a self-competition focus. In the second study, the more advanced gymnasts were likely to use mental strategies such as imagery and self-talk to control their worries. Past experiences and future goals were often expressed as reasons for learning and using the identified mental strategies. Increasing body awareness, self-confidence, and a sense of control may protect athletes from perceiving worries and fears as debilitative. Gymnasts, coaches, and sport psychology practitioners should carefully consider the role of prominent cognitions (e.g., fear of injury), in terms of both relative frequency and relative intensity, in an attempt to manage them effectively and increase the likelihood of achieving performance success. The findings of the current study suggest that athletes of various ages and competitive levels perceive emotions differently and cope differently. Knowledge of a variety of techniques and strategies are needed to help successfully manage emotions (Barlow, 2002; Beck et al., 2005). Effective interventions or mental training programs (Barlow, 2002; Vealey, 2007) often teach individuals to (a) identify present interpersonal needs, beliefs, worries and fears, patterns of behavior, and emotional responses (phenomenological experience appraisal); (b) examine the consequences of certain feelings and thoughts (consequential analysis); (c) generate alternative causal explanation to negative events (reattribution); (d) enumerate and compare pros and cons of maintaining certain beliefs and behavior patterns (cost-benefit analysis); and (e) learn psychological skills and techniques (e.g., kinesthetic and positive self-talk) to challenge and modify their worries (psychoeducation). These types of intervention or mental training programs may serve to make information processing more efficient and emotionally beneficial. In the current study, gymnasts competing at higher USAG levels used present-focus attentional strategies that directed their attention to the event or skill. Present-focus (versus futurefocus) approaches that are highly structured and directive seem to help redirect attention away from self-worries and assist in organizing information into balanced and meaningful elements that ultimately aids problem solving and relapse prevention (Martin, Thompson, & McKnight, 1998). Worry functions to heighten awareness of potential threat and to reduce somatic activation and feelings of uncertainty in the short term (Barlow, 2002). Negative beliefs about worry may exacerbate the worry cycle causing individuals (in this case, gymnasts) to worry about worrying (Wells, 1999). Subsequently, they may become intensely aware of their own unpleasant physical and emotional reactions and begin to dread the symptoms even more than the situation that triggers them (Beck et al., 2005). The more upset they get, the more exaggerated the symptoms may become. Attempts to control or reduce worry may be forms of

314 Martin et al.

experiential avoidance that can become self-perpetuating and may distract from more effective behavioral forms of responding. Interventions should regularly challenge gymnasts erroneous beliefs about worry and teach them to distinguish between worries that are responsive to problem solving and those that are not. Challenging erroneous beliefs and learning effective coping strategies should occur as a part of regular practice sessions (Jones & Swain, 1995). Cognitive worry exposure in which cognitive restructuring is paired with other coping strategies tend to work well for worries that are not amenable to problem solving (Ladouceur et al., 2000). Expanding the interventions to include various mindfulness exercises that increase present-moment awareness and acceptance of experience may also lessen daily stress, as well as reduce negative thoughts about performing (see Barlow, 2002; Vealey, 2007; Wells, 1999). Regularly using self-affirming positive thoughts and images may also help to maintain self-confidence and reduce self-criticism (Bandura, 1997). Enhancing perceived competence and feelings of control are necessary to help foster achievement motivation, skill acquisition, and performance success. Coping strategies coupled with social support (for emotional reasons) will likely maintain or increase efficacy of treatment components, especially for women (Crocker & Graham, 1995). Although procedures in this investigation included both interview and survey instruments to explore gymnasts worries and fears, the samples of gymnasts could be considered small. Further investigation is needed to determine whether the worries and fears that the gymnasts reported in this study are similar to what other gymnasts experience. Previous research indicates that males and females experience worries and fears differently (e.g., Lewinsohn, Gotlib, Lewisohn, Seeley, & Allen, 1998). Hence, it may be worthwhile to determine if this is also true in gymnastics. In relation to intensity and frequency of worries and fears, the duration of these negative thoughts should also be investigated. In addition, practitioners should determine whether certain mental training skills or combinations of skills and strategies are more effective than others for managing worries and fears. Interventions targeting significant others (e.g., coaches and parents) as well as the gymnasts may prove to be the best way to help change unhealthy beliefs and behaviors that are commonly observed in gymnastics. Acknowledgment
Appreciation is extended to David Conroy for allowing the authors to use his guided interview script. Gratitude is also extended to Tod Chasczewski, Rachel Foster, Michael Lichty, and Michelle Joshua for their assistance with the interviews and to Karen Cogan and Trent Petrie for providing feedback on the original survey.

References
American Academy of Pediatrics (July. 2002). Guidelines for pediatricians: Female athlete triad. American Academy of Pediatrics section on American Academy of Pediatrics, 8. Retrieved November 3, 2005 from http://www.aap.org/family/SportsShorts_08.pdf American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author. Arnold, A. (1999). Dealing with fear. Gymnastics magazine online. Retrieved October 15, 2002 from http://www.usa-gymnastics.org/publications/usa-gymnastics/1999/3/dealfear.html Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.

Worries and Fears in Gymnastics 315

Barlow, D.H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford. Beck, A.T., Emery, G., & Greenberg, R. (2005). Anxiety disorders and phobias: A cognitive perspective. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books. Caine, D.J., & Nassar, L. (2005). Gymnastics injuries. Medicine and Sport Science, 48, 1858. Cartoni, A.C., Minganti, C., & Zelli, A. (2005). Gender, age, and professional-level differences in the psychological correlates of fear of injury in Italian gymnasts. Journal of Sport Behavior, 28, 317. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2005). Safe USA: Gymnastics safety. Retrieved December 18, 2005 from http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps6793/www.cdc.gov/ safeusa/sports/gymnasti.htm Chase, M.A., Magyar, M.T., & Drake, B.M. (2005). Fear of injury in gymnastics: Selfefficacy and psychological strategies to keep on tumbling. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23, 465475. Cogan, K.D. (2006). Sport psychology in gymnastics. In J. Dosil (Ed.), The sport psychologists handbook: A guide for sport-specific performance enhancement (pp. 641661). West Sussex, England: Wiley. Conroy, D.E., Poczwardowski, A., & Henschen, K.P. (2001). Evaluative criteria and consequences associated with failure and success for elite athletes and performing artists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13, 300322. Cottyn, J., De Clercq, D., Pannier, J-L., Crombez, G., & Lenoir, M. (2006). The measurement of competitive anxiety during balance beam performance in gymnasts. Journal of Sports Sciences, 24, 157164. Crocker, P.R.E., & Graham, T.R. (1995). Coping by competitive athletes with performance stress: Gender differences and relationships with affect. The Sport Psychologist, 9, 325338. Duda, J.L. (1995). Level of competitive trait anxiety and sources of stress among members of the 1993 TOP Team. Technique, 16, 1013. Duda, J.L., & Gano-Overway, L. (1997). Anxiety in elite young gymnasts: Part III physical and psychological manifestations of stress. Technique, 18, 2122. Dunn, J.G.H. (1999). A theoretical framework for structuring the content of competitive worry in ice hockey. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 21, 259279. Dunn, J.G.H., & Syrotuik, D.G. (2003). An investigation of multidimensional worry dispositions in a high contact sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 4, 265282. Georgopoulos, N.A., Theodoropoulou, A., Leglise, M., Vagenakis, A.G., & Markou, K.B. (2004). Growth and skeletal maturation in male and female artistic gymnasts. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 89, 43774382. Goldstein, J.D., Berger, P.E., Windler, G.E., & Jackson, D.W. (1991). Spine injuries in gymnasts and swimmers. An epidemiologic investigation. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 19, 463468. Harris, R.N., Snyder, C.R., Higgins, R.L., & Schrag, J.L. (1986). Enhancing the prediction of self-handicapping. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 11911199. Johns, D.P. (1985, November). The short career of the female gymnast. Paper presented at the 6th annual meeting of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Boston, Massachusetts. Johnson, C., Powers, P.S., & Dick, R. (1999). Athletes and eating disorders: The national collegiate athletic association study. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 26, 179188. Jones, G., & Swain, A. (1995). Predispositions to experience debilitative and facilitative anxiety in elite and nonelite performers. The Sport Psychologist, 9, 201211. Ladouceur, R., Dugas, M.J., Freeston, M.H., Lger, E., Gagnon, F., & Thibodeau, N. (2000). Efficacy of a new cognitive-behavioral treatment for generalized anxiety disorder: Evaluation in a controlled clinical trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 957964.

316 Martin et al.

Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Cognition and motivation in emotion. The American Psychologist, 46, 352367. Lazarus, R.S. (2000). Toward better research on stress and coping. The American Psychologist, 55, 665673. Lewinsohn, P.M., Gotlib, I.H., Lewisohn, M., Seeley, J.R., & Allen, N.B. (1998). Gender differences in anxiety disorders and anxiety symptoms in adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107, 109117. Martin, S.B., Thompson, C.L., & McKnight, J. (1998). An integrative psychoeducational approach to sport psychology consulting: A case study. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 29, 170186. Mesagno, C. (2006). Investigating the use of choking intervention strategies with choking-susceptible athletes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Victoria University, Melborne, Australia. Meeusen, R., & Borms, J. (1992). Gymnastic injuries. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 13, 337356. National Collegiate Athletic Association. (2002). 19822001 NCAA sports sponsorship and participation report. Indianapolis, IN: National Collegiate Athletic Association. Nunnally, J.C., & Bernstein, I.H. (1994). Psychometric theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Petrie, T. (1993). Disordered eating in female collegiate gymnasts: Prevalence and personality/attitudinal correlates. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 15, 424436. Ryan, J. (2000). Little girls in pretty boxes: The making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters (Rev. ed.). New York: Doubleday. Silva, J.M. (1994). Sport performance phobias. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 25, 100118. Smith, A.M., Adler, C.H., Crews, D., Wharen, R.E., Laskowski, E.R., Barnes, K., et al. (2003). The yips in golf: A continuum between a focal dystonia and choking. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 33, 1331. USA Gymnastics National Womens Program Committee. (2005a). USA Gymnastics stats of 2004. Indianapolis, IN: USA Gymnastics. Retrieved January 4, 2006 from http:// www.usa-gymnastics.org/statistics/ USA Gymnastics National Womens Program Committee. (2005b). USA Gymnastics 20052006 womens rules and policies. Indianapolis, IN: USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics National Womens Program Committee. (2005c). Guide to gymnastics. Indianapolis, IN: USA Gymnastics. Retrieved January 4, 2006 from http://www.usagymnastics.org/gymnastics/guide.html Vealey, R.S. (2007). Mental skills training in sport. In G. Tenenbaum & R.C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of sport psychology (pp. 287309). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. Weiss, M.R., Wiese, D.M., & Klint, K.A. (1989). Head over heels with success: The relationship between self-efficacy and performance in competitive youth gymnastics. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 11, 444451. Wells, A. (1999). A metacognitive model and therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 6, 8695.