Gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of various Olympic finals the last few days citing her mental health after entering the Olympics with the highest of expectations. Area gymnasts and coaches could relate, on a smaller scale, to the six-time Olympic medalist to the mental challenges of the sport.
“Gymnastics is at least 50 percent mental a lot, maybe even 70 percent mental – especially at higher levels,” Connecticut Gymnastics Academy coach Dawn Albon said.
Albon has been coaching in the sport for nearly two decades and at the Wallingford gym for the past 10.
“Yesterday morning I was watching it live and I saw her vault,” Albon said. “When I saw her do a 1 ½ instead of a 2 ½ twist it was obvious something was wrong...She’s the greatest of all time and she got lost in the air. Her head went up instead of looking at the ground. I felt bad for her. She had the weight of the world on her shoulders.”
Albon said that Biles and the national team made the right decision because if Biles would have continued she would have been at greater risk of injury. Albon described Biles having the ‘twisties’ which is the gymnastics version of a mental block.
“It’s disappointing but clearly there was something bigger going on and we’ve had this happen in a smaller scale on our gym,” Albon said. “Twisties is are when you are twisting when you aren’t supposed to or you get lost in what you are doing. The No. 1 priority is the safety of athletes and clearly there was something going on with her.”
Albon, who coaches Level 3 to 10 at CGA and is also an assistant with the Yale women’s gymnastics team, said CGA devotes a lot of time to the mental aspect of the sport.
“We do a good job with progressions,” Albon said. “We go from one step to the next and we revisit those progressions on a weekly basis even if they are mastered. We are always drilling and skilling and that limits the chances of those mental blocks happening. We always want our athletes to feel confident before they go to harder skills. Even if we aren’t learning a skill that day, we are always moving forward and not backwards.”
“It’s a little different for Simone,” she added. “She doesn’t have time to go back to progressions that could help her. There’s not time for that. She’s at the Olympics and the workout times are small and limited.”
When one of her athletes gets a mental block, they go back to the last successful progression. Albon is the beam coach at CGA. She calls it the most mental of the gymnastic disciplines. She works on the mental aspect of the sport.
“We do so much work on their minds,” Albon said. “It’s my passion. A lot of gyms don’t really touch on it. But it needs to be touched on and coached. I know they do it on the national team. Stress took over Simone and it came out in her twisties. When you watch her you don’t think she’s human. But she is. For the girls to see Simone have issues – it’s good for the girls to see. The way it is handled the right way for the safety of the athlete.”
Two of Albon’s star pupils are Wallingford’s Nicole Dementyev and Darien’s Bailey Cahill. Dementyev is a 17-year-old who attends Sacred Heart Academy-Hamden who has been with CGA since she as three years old and Cahill, a Level 10 gymnast goes to Darien High School and in a relative newcomer to the gym. She joined about a year ago.
Dementyev is the reining Level 9 Eastern National floor champion. She won the honor in May in Georgia.
Like many gymnasts, Dementyev was heartbroken by what happened to Biles.
“I understand what she is going through,” Dementyev said. “There are so many other aspects to think about other than a gold medal. If you get the twisties on vault it’s hard to come back from that. She could have injured herself even more. It’s important to think about your mental and physical well being more than getting a gold medal. There was a lot that went into her decision I’m sure. If she continued it could have been dangerous. That’s when you have to take a step back.”
Dementyev said she’s always loved the sport. Having the support of her coaches and teammates and added that nailing a skill for the first time makes everything worth it.
Cahill started competing in the second grade, but was in the gym even before then.
She said she’s dealt with various injuries during her career including ailments with her elbow and ankles.
Most recently she dislocated her elbow while competing this winter and has since made a full recovery. She said at times it was tough mentally doing certain skills again at first.
“Injuries get discouraging but the coaches are supportive and push you to succeed. We pushed to get better but not so hard so I got hurt,” Cahill said. “I had a great support system around me and it helped my mentality. During my time off I was able to think about things and I got my love for the sport back...Injuries happen. When I came to CGA, I was supportive during that process. I feel for Simone. Sometimes, mentally and physically you need a break. It’s most important to be as safe as you can be.”
Southington High School gymnastics coach Cassidy Chamberland has been involved with the sport for 20 years as an athlete and coach. She has coached the last eight years and is enter her fourth as head coach of the Blue Knights.
“It was shocking to see Simone depart,” Chamberland said. “But everyone needs to listen to their own mind and body individually. I thought it was awesome that the three other girls performed at the level they did behind her. It’s a team sport even though you are competing individually. It’s still a team sport even in the Olympics.”
Chamberland said she works on the mental aspect of the sport. Before competitions, she has the close their eyes and visualize their routines before they go out and perform them. She added her athletes do that individually as well.
“When they are not confident in a skill, I don’t encourage them to go fro it,” Chamberland said. “You have to have the appropriate level of drilling. In high school practices, when they want to go for a bigger skill, you make sure they are confident in themselves – otherwise injuries can happen.”
Southington High incoming junior Taylor Kelly, also competes at the club circuit on the club level with John’s Academy of Gymnastics (JAG) in Wallingford.
She said she was shocked by what happened to Biles.
“It’s happened to me a couple of times and it’s scary,” Kelly said. “When it happens you are just in shock.”
Her Blue Knight teammate Kelsey Salerno, also a junior, said the sport can take a physical and mental toll.
“I can see where she’s coming from,” Salerno said. “A lot of the sport is mental and it takes a lot of courage to compete and do your skill. There’s a lot of mental work that goes into it – not just strength.”
Wallingford’s Sierra Bauman is a University of New Hampshire (Division I) said she’s lost her place in the air before on bars.
“When I went back and watched her vault its really scary when you lose your place in the air,” Bauman said. “You don’t know how you are going to land. I’ve done it on bars before. You don’t know if you are going to land on your head, your feet or your side. Especially when you are twisting. Normally you are more sideways and it’s very scary in the moment.”
Bauman said when you get a mental block you have to step back and re-learn the skill.
Bauman competed for New Hampshire on floor exercise and did exhibition on bars. She studying microbiology.