High bars, high pressure: mental health in gymnastics
- Credit: North London Rhythmic Gymnastics Academy
"Gymnasts are not robots, they are human beings enjoying a sport."
With the subject of mental health in the high-pressure sport of gymnastics hitting the headlines at the Tokyo Olympics, awareness has never been higher at London academies.
Olympic and World Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles withdrew from several competitive events at the Games to prioritise her mental health, before returning to the beam a week later and winning a bronze medal.
"We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” she told the BBC.
Matteo Cara, an ex-athlete and a coach at Over Gravity Gymnastics in Bromley-by-Bow, said: “These amazing accomplishments also bring a heavy burden for the person who is doing it.
“Simone is showing the world that gymnasts are not robots, they are human beings enjoying a sport. When the enjoyment of the sport stops, the human side needs to take over. That’s the moment you need to stop for your mental wellbeing.”
Matteo suggested that emotional sensitivity and “some study of psychology” can help to “create a dialogue between the coach and the student”, reducing pressure and leading to better results.
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Angela Velicko, director of North London Rhythmic Gymnastics Academy in North Finchley, said there can be parental pressure.
She said: “Some parents want the children to train all hours of all day, but the child might not want to.
“We keep parents outside of the gym otherwise they would try to control us, try to teach us how to coach."
Angela said that aside from parents, a lot of pressure stems from the child’s desire to win.
“Gymnastics in UK is very competitive, and the kids want to compete against clubs, so they work very hard,” she said.
The academy has welfare officers present in all sessions to help ensure that children do not get overwhelmed with stress. Angela said coaches encourage fun by regularly changing activities and motivating the students.
Dr Stefan Kolimechkov, a three-time London Gymnastics champion and a sports scientist, said: “Experiencing stress and anxiety during training and competitions are normal reactions.
"However, if those feelings continue for a long time and become chronic, then it is important for the athlete to seek professional help.”