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5 Lessons Gymnastics Taught Me About Mental Illness Recovery

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I’ve been dealing with mental illness for a while now, and a lot of it has involved fear. Fear of trying and failing, of embarrassment, of quite a few day-to-day things, really. As a result, I ended up with very little trust in myself and others and lots of doubt in my abilities.

As I’ve been working on regaining my confidence, one of the things that has remained constant is my love for gymnastics. I’d never really thought much about why, but I had a realization that it’s much more than just liking it because I always had.

I’ve learnt some pretty important life lessons in the gym, so I thought I’d share them in the hopes that – whether you’re a “sports person” or not – they’ll resonate.

1. I will never know until I try.

Gymnastics basically involves doing things that aren’t exactly everyday activities. You don’t tend to see people walking down the street and suddenly jumping into a flip. Gymnastics isn’t easy, but what is easy is believing a move is too difficult to do.

I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been preparing to do a move and stopped halfway, thinking, I can’t do it. But the funny thing is, I generally can.

Once I’ve got over the fear of failing or getting injured or of trying something new, I tend to find it’s easier than I think it’ll be. Most of the time, I can have at least a basic grasp of how to do whatever move it is by the end of the session, and more often than not, I really love doing it and can’t wait to try again next time.

Lesson learned: There’s no time in life for “can’t,” because saying I can’t do something a lot of time wasted that could be used for practicing once I know I can. I definitely won’t be able to do it if I never try.

2. Trust people to catch me if I fall (but recognize they’re human, too!)

As a gymnast, you have to put a lot of trust in your coaches. A lot. You’re throwing yourself into moves that have the potential to be pretty dangerous. You could break bones, tear ligaments and gain a whole host of other injuries. I have to believe if I go into a back somersault that isn’t quite high enough, they’ll push me up enough so I don’t land on my head. If I do a back handspring that goes wonky, I have to trust they’ll keep me straight enough to at least stay on the mat.

The same is true for life. I have to trust if I fall low or go off course there will be people to help me back. Coaches are people too though, and if there’s a move I’ve been able to do before, they may not necessarily ask straight away if I’ve lost confidence a bit and need some support. As soon as I ask, though, they’ll be there.

Sometimes they lose their grip and you fall, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be there for you the next time. Just because they didn’t manage to protect me once, doesn’t mean they didn’t try their absolute hardest to stop me from falling.

Lesson learned: I have to trust people to catch me when I fall. Even if they can’t always manage it, I’m less likely to fall if I have support than if I try to face something on my own.

3. If I get stuck, I need to take it back a few steps.

Recently, I lost the ability to do a move I’d been able to do for a while. It was a relatively simple move, but I fell once and got a mental block. I’d run towards the trampette, arms out, ready to launch myself over the vault, and stop. I physically couldn’t bring myself further than that. I got very frustrated. It was something I’d done many times before, my coaches were there to support me, everyone else was managing to do it, so why couldn’t I?

My coaches helped by getting me to first stand on the trampette and jump into handstand on the vault while they held my legs. Then I ran, jumped off the trampette into handstand on the vault, and eventually I completed the move (handspring over vault for any gymnasts out there).

Lesson learned: It’s OK to go back to basics if that’s what you need. A mental block doesn’t mean something’s lost forever.

4. If I can beat my fears, I can beat anything.

For a very long time, a back somersault was easily one of my biggest gymnastics fears. I hated the thought of going backwards with nothing to support me if I fell. With a back handspring, at least your arms are there to catch you if you fall, but with a back tuck, they’re holding your knees and can’t always reach the floor before your face does.

One day, I decided I wanted to do it. I just had to chuck myself backwards and trust my coach would catch me if I fell. I arrived at the gym and after warming up, I said to the coach I wanted to try it. So that’s what we did. He got ready to support and I got ready to jump. We did a countdown and I did everything needed for a back tuck… except jump. Because the coach was expecting me to go for it, he supported me as if I had jumped, and I ended up standing with my arms up and my coach was holding my leg up to my head. It gave us a good laugh at least.

So I tried again and again and again, and one day, I just threw it. I chucked myself backwards and landed it. It was the best feeling. Doing a back somersault is now one of my favorite things and I wouldn’t have this feeling if I hadn’t kept pushing to conquer my fear.

Lesson learned: I must keep pushing to fight my fears, because it’ll be worth it in the end.

5. If it’s something I want, I have to keep trying.

Very few things in life are easy, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t worth having. In gymnastics, you have to do things again and again and again and again to finally be able to do even the relatively easy moves. You have to keep pushing and keep trying in order to achieve what you aim to, but it is so worth it in the end. The pride of finally achieving something I’ve been working on for ages is second to none. This can be applied to life so easily. Even if getting that grade/job/possession/feeling is hard, if you keep trying, you will get there eventually and it will feel amazing when you do.

Lesson learned: Practice really does make perfect. I need to keep trying for the things I really want. It’ll make me feel even more grateful for it in the end.

Basically, I will keep striving to be bold, brave, trust in both myself and others and keep going. I’ll get there eventually.

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Thinkstock photo via fizkes.

Originally published: April 13, 2017
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