Why Transitioning Help is Critical for Athletes

By Kelly Garrison Funderburk 

Kelly blog pic.png

When my parents flew over to Seoul, South Korea to watch me compete in the 1988 Olympics for women’s artistic gymnastics, they happened to be seated next to a group of sport psychologists who were also traveling there to help the American athletes during and or after their Olympic experience. Making conversation, my inquisitive mother asked them for more details of what their services provided and meant. They explained to her how every athlete experiences the Olympic Games differently,  and they were hired to be available to help athletes psychologically and emotionally for this adjustment. My mother quickly informed them her daughter would never need assistance for something like that. Oh, how little; did she know?

These professional sports psychologists, hired by the United States Olympic Committee, continued to explain how some athletes will be finishing their careers upon completion of their last routine, sprint, swim, match or game in their sport. Some will be emotionally dealing with the results of that long-awaited competition, win or loss. Some will be questioning retirement. Some will be dealing with disappointment, others with success, and still others with the unexpected feelings of “now what am I going to do with the rest of my life”. 

Often, these athletes have never thought past their goal in sport. Their many years of intense focus and wearing sport blinders have made them unaware they are even wearing them. Their steadfast commitment and dedication are so natural and commonplace, it is their “norm”, which can be viewed as a double-edged sword. This type of total dedication to the sport is usually required in order to achieve worldly success one desires, but it can come with a hardy sacrifice of being disengaged to the reality of what happens outside of sport and, particularly, after sport.

It wasn’t until their happy-go-lucky, fun spirited Kelly, whom everyone knew so well, began behaving in an extremely bizarre way, inconsistent with the first 21 years of my life, my parents began to worry. It wasn’t until I began cutting my wrists, breaking glass objects over my head, and not caring about life or the consequences of my uniquely odd choices, that everyone began to realize I was not okay and definitely needed psychological help. This started one year after my Olympic experience. I was NEVER offered a psychologist or transitioning assistance when I was at the Olympic Games. I was never offered help by our national governing body, the university I attended, my coach, my parents or anyone else. Most people were and are unaware of this critical component of the athlete’s journey in sport.

My two and a half year marriage was falling apart. I was spiraling down into a deep depression, although I didn’t know at the time that was what it was. I was hurting myself in a cry for help as I battled my internal thoughts and detailed suicidal plans. Not one person; who knew me then or knows me now; would ever believe that I could struggle with issues like depression. Kelly? Depression? No way!

I was scared. I was sad, and I felt completely ALONE! That is precisely why the sports community, society in general, parents, coaches, and athletes need to be informed and offered the educational resources to help them have a clearer understanding of how to help athletes transition from sport to their new life after sport. It takes years for athletes to climb to the top of their game with years of dedication. Athletes are trained by experts on how to go up the mountain but are rarely, if ever, trained how to come down. I felt I was dropped off the edge of the mountain when I retired from gymnastics. Athletes, and sometimes even the parents of those athletes, need to have the resources, avenues, and time to process leaving their first love (sport) and begin to find their next steps to thrive in their life after sport.

 This is why helping athletes to understand the transition process when leaving sport is part of our Optimal Athlete Wheel of Wellness. We believe in helping athletes during and after.

If you or someone you know; would like to further learn how to work through the transitioning process, we welcome you to reach out to Kelly Garrison Funderburk at Kelly@thriving-after-sport.com or Theresa Kulikowski Gillespie at Theresa@fit-intuit.com .


The Take Away

Who- Helps Athlete, Parents, Coaches

What-Ease the Transitioning Process from Sport

When-Toward End of Career


Why-To Save Athletes Mental Anguish

How-Education through Online Training or Professional Counseling

Here’s a Tool for Coaches! One Aspect of Mentally Coaching a Fearful Gymnast.

Part One: Out of Control Thinking Leads to Out of Control Performance 

You’ve been through this many many times before. She would do them perfectly yesterday and now she just won’t go. Then there’s the other one. The one who has decided all of a sudden, not to do the straddle back that she has competed for the last three seasons. Gymnastics is a scary sport. But dealing with a fearful gymnast can be even scarier. How do you do it?

Whether it is a new skill or a skill a gymnast has competed for years, there are things coaches can do to help their gymnasts work through fear. Humiliation, throwing a gymnast out of workout, and yelling are not tactics teaching your athletes good coping skills. This article will explore one of the ways you can help your athletes cope with fear and work through it successfully. 

Where does fear come from? 

Fear can arise from many sources. Sometimes it is a result of a past fall, injury, or trauma. Other times, it arises out of low self-confidence. Whatever the source, one major cause of fear in gymnasts is out of control thinking. Out of control thinking leads to out of control performance.

The root of most fear and balking are thoughts that are negative and catastrophic. So this means, helping your athletes create disciplined, positive, thinking patterns will lead to disciplined, positive, performance. What are our athletes thinking as they are standing on the beam for 15 minutes trying to throw a series? Most likely, their thoughts are about crashing, falling, or other fantasies of what MAY happen. This out of control, negative thinking is a major cause of the fear/balking cycle. 

How to create disciplined thinking. 

If out of control thinking leads to out of control performance, then the most important intervention coaches can do with their athletes is help them create disciplined thinking patterns. When gymnasts have ritualized thoughts before skills or competition, negative thought patterns are less likely to intrude. I call the creating of ritualized thoughts before skills, during routines, or during competition, mental choreography.

In gymnastics we choreograph everything, floor routines, beam routines, even bar routines have some sort of choreography. Why is it then that our athletes thoughts are negative and scattered? Choreographing what gymnasts say to themselves is extremely important. It is a way for coaches to “get in their heads”, helping them create positive images for themselves. 

Developing mental choreography.

There are three types of statements used in creating mental choreography. These statements are technical statements, energy statements and self-esteem statements. Technical statements include corrections, and mechanical reminders the gymnast focuses on before or during routines. Examples of technical statements include, “lift and twist”, “block”, and “tight legs”. Energy statements either help give the gymnast an energy boost or decrease anxiety. Energy statements that bring the gymnast’s energy up can be used at the end of a floor routine, “Push!”, or right before a bar mount, “Go!”. Statements like “relax” and “breathe” help bring fear and anxiety levels down to a more manageable level. Finally, self-esteem statements help the gymnast feel more confident. Statements like “I can do this”, “I’ve done it before”, and “I’m ready”, give the gymnast the power and confidence she needs to go for a skill or hit in competition. 

Teaching a gymnast to combine these three types of statements and choreograph each of her routines is essential to developing disciplined thinking. Every routine should be choreographed, including the waiting time before the judge raises her hand, the mount, and during the routine. Many gymnasts may feel that vault and bars are too fast to choreograph. In that case, be sure they choreograph any key corrections and the seconds before their mount or run.

An example of mental choreography before a bars mount may sound like, “Breathe, I can do this, tight legs”. An example before a beam series may sound like, “Straight, over the top, Go!”. It is especially important to have the entire beam and floor routine mentally choreographed. Not simply difficult skills or passes. This keeps the gymnast focused on her routine without distraction or space for entering negative thoughts. 

Mental choreography is something that is done consistently, in workouts, during visualization, and in competition. Establishing the connection between a word and perfect performance is a valuable tool. For example, if a gymnast does ten perfect beam series on the floor and before each one she says, “Legs, square, Go!”, the chances of her doing a perfect series on beam using the same words increases. This is identical in competition. If a gymnast performs the same ritual over and over the opportunities for success increase and anxiety decreases. 

How to use mental choreography in your gym.

Mental choreography is not difficult to implement in normal workouts. Once gymnasts understand the concept, they can write out their mental choreography at home so as not to take up gym time. Gymnasts should write out each event, what skills they are doing on that event, and what words they are pairing up with each skill. For beam and floor, have them write out their entire routine or floor pattern. Then, instruct them to write their mental choreography on top of the beam they have drawn or on their floor pattern.

After mental choreography is written out, have your athletes do mental “walk-throughs” that you can watch and monitor. Instruct them to say their mental choreography out loud. Be sure they are fully committed to the mental choreography and are not sloppy. Stress the importance of disciplined thinking.

Check in with mental choreography throughout the season. Ask your gymnasts what they are thinking before their bar routine, their series, or their vault for example. When dealing with a fearful gymnast, ask her what she is thinking about before performing her skills. If she does not have mental choreography, help her create strong, powerful, words. Instruct fearful gymnasts to visualize their skills with their key words. This builds the connection between the words and the skill.

If a gymnast is in the middle of a fear cycle, balking, and frustrated, instruct her to go over to the side and visualize or practice on the floor either the skill or a drill using her mental choreography. After she has completed a number of drills, have her then return to the event to try the skill again. Implementing mental choreography is an essential tool for a fearful gymnast.

Negative, catastrophizing, and undisciplined thoughts are the key cause of balking and anxiety. Adding mental choreography to a training regimen will decrease fear and balking in the gym. It will also increase consistency with gymnasts with a tendency to be over-anxious in competition. Remember, out of control thinking leads to out of control gymnastics. Helping athletes become more disciplined in their thinking with increase consistency and confidence.


The Mindful Approach to Injury

When I think back on all of the injuries that I incurred as a gymnast, I cringe at the way I dealt with them.  I have that same reaction when I watch gymnastics, or any sport for that matter, on TV and hear the commentators praising athletes for competing with a torn rotator cuff or pushing through some type of physical pain. 

Having been a gymnast for 21 years, I understand that mentality of “mind over matter” and “no pain, no gain”, but now 16 years removed from sport, I have a completely different perspective.  While we’re in the thick of competition, we push through in hopes of attaining our athletic goals, and we’re oftentimes praised for it.  Pushing through creates a sense of feeling tough and even more deserving of our accomplishments once they’re met. 

But is this short-term gain worth the long term pain? I don’t think so…

I was one of those athletes who had a lot of injuries throughout my athletic career and pushed beyond where I should have.  My body was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t listen.  Then it started to yell at me, and I didn’t listen.  Then, it started to scream at me, and…I didn’t listen.  It met it’s limit a few years back, and I have been forced to relearn how to truly listen to and respect my body. 

 So, I’m speaking from experience here and want to ensure that our young athletes know how to listen when their bodies are talking to them and praise them for having the intelligence to honor and respect the physical messages.

I believe there is a different way to work with injury in sport.  I know that injuries are inevitable, but what we can control is how we relate to them, learn from them, and make the mind and body even stronger as a result of them. 

 First and foremost, we need to focus on injury prevention through proper nutrition, stretching, conditioning, and skill progression.  This is our approach at OAW—one of addressing all areas of wellness to minimize the risk of injury.  That said, injuries and accidents happen regardless of your level of preparation sometimes, so how do we handle them?

It’s critical that athletes feel safe to speak up when they are injured.  If they aren’t encouraged to share their needs or feel that they need to push through in order to be praised, they won’t tell their coaches when they are injured and will continue to cause more harm.  Having a safe space to speak up can put the mind of an athlete at ease knowing that they can listen to their body’s messages and vocalize when they feel pain. 

Gymnasts also need to know how to listen to their bodies with an accepting attention.  Most successful athletes have great body awareness, but it’s oftentimes accompanied by a very critical judge.  So, they may be completely aware that they are in pain, but their mind tells them to tough it out, stop being weak, or just ignore it. To counter this inner criticism, athletes need to be taught how to be aware of their bodies with respect and acceptance. 

How do they learn this?  We have to teach them!  There’s a mindfulness practice called “the body scan” which is simply a mental scan of the body from toes to head, coming in contact with the raw sensations that arise.  The body scan can be guided (preferably by someone well-versed in the practice, and I have included one here), or once the athlete understands it, can do it on his/her own. 

Enjoy this guided body scan by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

This practice trains the brain to recognize physical sensation free of judgment.  How can this help with injury?  If the athlete has practiced getting in touch with what is going on in their bodies, they will be much better equipped to know when something is off or being overly stressed and, most importantly, have a more respectful way of relating to it. 

Instead of mentally trying to override the pain, they will learn how to listen to the messages the body is sending.  That, coupled with a safe space to speak up, will allow the athlete to then take the proper measures to take care of the pain or injured area.

I personally utilized the body scan following my gymnastics career because I was so distant from my body, if that makes sense.  I didn’t really know how to listen to what it was saying because my brain had been trained to, regardless of what my body was saying, ignore it or overcome it somehow. 

So, once again, hindsight is 20/20, and all of us at Optimal Athlete Wellness want to make sure that gymnasts take care of their bodies!  We work to minimize injury in the first place. When injury has occurred, however, we need to encourage athletes to take care of and respect what their bodies are telling them. 

 The short-term gain is not worth the long-term pain, and we don’t have to push through in order to be great in sport. 

 Let’s train smart.

Let’s be mindful.

Let’s create a safe space for athletes’ voices to be heard.

Let’s praise our athletes for knowing how to listen to their bodies instead of praising them for ignoring and pushing beyond their limits.

Let’s teach our athletes how to honor and respect their bodies so they can reach their fullest potential in sport and have health and balance in their life after sport.