how to deal with balking

Andy Thornton posted an article titled: How to deal with balking…

… If you’re a gymnastics coach, you immediately know what I mean when I use the word “balk.” It can be a coach’s worst nightmare.

A gymnast develops a fear of a skill – sometimes a completely irrational one – and one time becomes scared enough to actually abort the skill before even attempting it. Common examples include dismounts off of high bar/uneven bars, release moves, backward tumbling skills on floor, and just about any skill on beam.

Balking once or twice isn’t what drives the coach crazy…it’s the fact that balking becomes a habit that tends to get worse and worse if it’s allowed to continue. A gymnast may at first balk about 1 out of every 10 attempts, then soon this becomes 1 out of every 5, then 1 out of 4, 1 out of 3…and then half the time. Often this trend continues to the point where the gymnast simply has psyched himself or herself completely out and won’t go for the skill at all …

read and comment on his American Gymnast blog – How to deal with balking…

In over 30yrs coaching, here’s all I’ve learned about balking:

• it’s more common with females than males
• it’s more common with backward skills, than forward

On those skills where kids are most likely to learn to balk (e.g. flyaway), go slow.

You can hurry a forward handspring, but it’s best NOT to rush a backward handspring.

Finally, the main quality you need as a coach is patience. Every balking problem is different. Stay calm and the gymnast may resolve the mental block themselves. (Booking an extra practice dedicated only to e.g. Beam Series is a last, last resort.)

related post with good comments – gymnastics mental blocks

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coach Rick

Career gymnastics coach from Calgary, Canada.

11 thoughts on “how to deal with balking”

  1. I used to do fall drills to get past balking. Controlled falls to just get the movement going again and reinforcing that falls don’t really hurt if you’re not afraid to fall.

  2. Fear is a really, really interesting thing. And of course, it’s not all that exciting until it’s completely irrational!

    If we view gymnastics as a way of learning how to move our bodies through the air, or in relation to an apparatus, isn’t it funny to notice that the most commonly feared elements are often the first of their nature we’ve learnt on that apparatus?
    E.g. giants on bars – the first time we’ve done a stretched swing (where we could peel and fall off!);
    flyaways (“what? we’ve got to swing, tap and hollow, not peel, let go, flip, not clip my feet, land, AND stick my dismount?);
    go upside down on a very narrow beam, with a very narrow and uncomfortable support base (how much time do we REALLY spend teaching and using beam hands?) for walkovers and back handsprings;
    And jump upside down onto my heads (but don’t land on your head!) and then somehow bounce off my hands and land back on my feet? –> Learning backhandsprings.

    If you think about the skills that athletes fear in the same way that the athletes think about them, we might start to understand why they fear the skill. Sometimes they don’t understand how to do the skill, or where to exactly put their body. We can teach and tell them that, through verbal explanations, diagrams, demonstrations and drills. But sometimes the fear and confusion will just stay there until their body has experienced enough off a particular movement to really understand what has to happen for it to occur successfully. Often fear isn’t “instantly cured”; instead, the absence of fear is often not noticed until weeks or months later!

    I’ve experienced and researched a lot within the sports psychology world, and done a lot of thinking about how it applies to gymnastics. As coaches, I think we need to preempt where fear will occur, and not only teach the skill, but teach skills and give tips and teach methods to deal with the fear.

    For example, a backwalkover on beam could be simply be a backwalkover on beam for one gymnast. For another gymnast, they may be miffed by the thought of actually doing it on a beam before they have even done any line drills on it! If we establish what is the most central aspect of the fear, we can cater for more gymnasts in the drills and progressions we devise to help reduce it.
    Let’s say that the most central fear for our gymnast in a back walkover was the part where she had to reach back and put her hands on the beam. I’d say for most gymnasts, this is the most scary part (“What if I miss? Where is the beam? What if my hands slip?”) – NOT the actual motion of travelling through a split handstand whilst going backwards.

    Drills, progressions or related activities I’d be spending lots of time doing (and also in the months before you plan on introducing the actual BWO):
    *Holding a handstand on beam. Not enough time is EVER devoted to holding a steady handstand on beam (not the “2 second” brief hold most gymnasts do). Front side, spotted – it doesn’t matter. Get comfortable being upside down!
    *Doing a bridge on beam (both low/high). Yes, tricky to get to stay on the beam, so probably a good one for low beam to start with feet on the floor, and then walk them up to the beam.
    *On the floor beam, doing back walkovers or bridge kickovers (from floor or raised height like box) with hands on beam, but not aiming to land feet on beam. Similarly, do the same but with normal hands, and aim for feet to land on the beam. Take some of the pressure of the entire skill and allow the gymnast to experience the motion of the skill without the pressure of the entire skill.
    *Stand, lower to bridge, stand up again. Probably not smart to do that on a high beam, but definitely on low beam. (Feet can also be straddling the beam to allow for better balance).
    *If you teach a tic toc (and especially if they’ve got good handstand mastery), and the athlete masters it, then a whole chunk of a skill is already learnt, and then only the entry phase of the walkover (which makes the entire walkover easier!) needs to be taught and learnt.

    These are just some ideas, and of course they need to be used in conjunction with plenty of other ideas and drills coaches have. It is in no way an exhaustive list or compulsory checklist; rather, it is ideas that in my mind make logical sense as to the ability to help reduce the potential fear a gymnast could have. As well, it is idealistic to be able to incorporate each one into a beam rotation, given time/equipment/coach spotting constraints.

    But food for thought!

    1. Wow.

      Great comments. Thanks.

      … The original post doesn’t talk about it, but in my experience it’s trampoline sports that have the craziest mental blocks of all.

      Makes me wonder how that fits in to the sport psychology.

  3. This post came at an opportune time! One of my gymnasts was going for a round-off handspring tuck last night when one of the boys kept telling her, “Don’t fall.” I spoke to him about that and he will probably be spoken to again. As expected, she fell and got hurt doing a skill she could do in her sleep. Now she’s afraid and hurting and I have to work her through that fear before it turns into a balking issue.

  4. One successful tip can be visual clues. Have the gymnast perform a round-off and focus on their finger tips. have the gymnast do a standing back handspring and watch their fingers hit the ground. now spot them on a round-off back handspring as they look at their fingers from round-off to back handspring. Make sure they focus on watching their hands from round-off to back handspring and watching their hands hit the ground on the back handspring. You need to convince the athlete that by watching their fingers, they will not balk. The visual clue keeps them confident and also helps them control their mind from wandering. Often balking stems from throwing the head back and loosing spacial awareness which is why most don’t balk on forward skills. Visual clues can work well if the gymnast and coach practice them on a regular basis and don’t overdo repetitions. It’s better to say “today you are going to focus on your fingers and perform 5 round-off back handsprings”. Have them do the five and move on. Doing 20 and balking on the 21st is worse than not doing any. Don’t let your gymnast balk or you could be in for real trouble. Visual clues can also work well on flyaway balking. Make them look at their feet as they let go. If they don’t see their feet, it’s no good even if they do let go. The visual clue needs to be practiced all the time. good luck!!

  5. Thanks! I hope she doesn’t even start to balk, but this refresher is good just in case she shows the signs. She’s still so young – 8 – that fear hasn’t really registered yet in her. I have to tell her to stop and think things through a lot of the time at this stage, because she’ll get an idea in her head to just throw anything! If this happened at age 13, I could almost guarantee balking would start us down a slippery slope. So I’m glad the article is out there and I appreciate your help, too. I feel the more prepared we are for worst case scenarios, the better off we’ll be.

  6. Following on from anna-
    I know of several gyms that have preteam-ers through junior elites working held split handstand using BHS hand placement on beam. That way by the time you get to back walkover the gymnast knows the second part already, and has it comfortably. And the same with BHS. As an added bonus, if you want to work tic toc or front walkover the handstand part is already well controlled, AND you can incorparate the way you want back acro to finish (lunge, turn out, arm position, whatever your gym does).

  7. My 11 year old had a near fall about 3 weeks ago on her back walk on beam and has not done one on high beam since. She has now missed the first 2 meets of the season and doesn’t seem to be on the right track to beating this issue . Could you offer any other sugestions on how I can help her get back on track?

  8. My daughter is a 2nd yr level 7. She was successfully doing back handsprings and tic tock back handsprings on the beam, then her coach asked her to do a standing back handspring on the beam, totally threw her off. Now, unless she has a spot she won’t do any type of back handspring, total balk. She says she is a afraid she will fall. How do I help her move on? She was the National Beam Champion @ the YMCA Nationals this year, we are just started our new season and I’d like her confidence back plus she wats to be a level 8. Any advice would be appreciated!

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