sealPurdue News

May 1996

Purdue expert helps Olympic gymnasts handle the competition

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- With this summer's Olympic games being held in the United States, American athletes may feel extra pressure to perform well in front of the home crowd. Some of the youngest U.S. athletes are receiving extra training to help them deal with the stress.

A Purdue University professor of sport and exercise psychology, Joan L. Duda, is the sports psychology consultant for the USA Gymnastics women's team. Duda started working with the gymnasts in 1992, after the Barcelona Olympic games.

That year, when the United States took the bronze medal in women's gymnastics, the coaches were thrilled, but they didn't see that same excitement mirrored in the faces of the athletes, says Kathy Kelly, women's program director for USA Gymnastics. "The girls looked disappointed," she says. "We felt we may not have paid enough attention to the pressure put on these girls, and the expectations they had. Right away we started looking for someone to help the girls with stress management."

Kelly's pleased with Duda's work with the girls. "Because these Olympics are being held in this country, there's more media hype and pressure, and we feel the women gymnasts are better prepared to handle it," Kelly says.

Duda says training the mind is an essential part of any athlete's training regimen. "The skills we work on include 'reading yourself' or knowing the state of mind you are in and regulating it. We also teach goal setting, relaxation techniques, the effective use of imagery and how to establish pre-performance routines." she says. "And we also work too with coaches to help them foster these skills in their physical training sessions."

Duda says as a group, these elite young athletes are quite well-adjusted. "We have found that the girls are not only talented gymnasts, but they also are good students, are gifted with other abilities such as musical talents, and they do see themselves as multi-faceted individuals."

She says that's particularly important in a sport where athletes may retire before graduating from high school. "If an athlete defines herself as 'only a good gymnast,' she is getting the wrong message," Duda says. "We feel that the girls should be competing for no other reason than that they love the sport."

The mean age for girls on the senior team is 17. Last year's national women's gymnastics champion was 13 years old. The Olympic rules committee has decided that starting with the summer Olympic games in the year 2000, women gymnasts must be at least 16 years old during the calendar year of the event.

Duda also educates the girls, coaches and parents on the benefits of a positive sports environment. Duda emphasizes to coaches and parents that they must provide constant support for the girls. "A girl's parents are particularly key," she says. "They must provide unconditional love and acceptance. If she makes an error, she needs to know that they still love her. If she wants to give up on the sport, she should know they'll support her decision."

Each year Duda collects data on gymnasts during the Talent Opportunity Program, a camp for the nation's top 8- through 12-year-old gymnasts. During one session in December 1994, 70 girls were questioned about their training environment, feelings of satisfaction and self-esteem, and the levels of stress and enjoyment they felt. Their answers support the concept of "good" gyms vs. "less positive" gyms, or the idea that some training methods are better than others.

"A 'good' gym is a place where hard work and improvement are emphasized," Duda says. "Coaches don't habitually yell or scream, and they downplay the fact that an athlete must outdo others. We found that gymnasts who trained under such conditions tended to have high self-esteem, a more positive body image and a greater enjoyment of gymnastics.

"On the other hand, in a 'less positive' gym, gymnasts perceive that rivalry between athletes is encouraged, mistakes will be punished and the coach favors the more talented gymnasts. The negative environment contributes to athletes feeling self-doubt, higher levels of stress when competing and a tendency for the athletes to develop performance difficulties."

Duda says gymnastics has received a bum rap for supposedly laying the foundation for eating disorders. "That isn't the case. Sound nutrition and a positive self-image are important to peak performance," she says. "The psychological and nutritional factors that contribute to eating disorders are in part a function of the athlete's home situation, training and motivational environment -- not gymnastics or any other particular sport."

Duda says the potential for eating disorders among gymnasts also is tied to the girls' personalities and youth. "Elite gymnasts tend to have traits that include perfectionism, obsessive behavior and attention to detail," she says. "These athletes also are young, and research shows that self-esteem in middle-school and adolescent girls plummets from elementary school. That is why we never stress weight or appearance as factors in how the girls will perform."

Athletes not the only ones stressed at competitions

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The pressure of a good Olympic performance is not only felt by the athletes, but also by the officials who must determine the outcome.

In a survey of 647 women's gymnastics officials, the judges admitted they too are stressed before events. "One-fourth of them experienced stress levels that we would consider debilitating," says Joan L. Duda, Purdue University professor of sport and exercise psychology. "In general, we didn't find an especially high level of stress across the board, but as you move up the competitive ladder, the intensity of the anxiety felt by the judges is exacerbated."

Duda says the primary sources of stress were concern about how they would perform as judges and whether their skills had kept up with the increasing standards of the sport.

Duda says the gymnastics performance routines have become increasingly complex. She says these judges -- in comparison to umpires and referees -- not only have the responsibility of enforcing the rules of the sport, but they also have to rate the performances.

Duda found two distinct patterns among the judges for coping with stress -- one good, the other bad. She says only one-third of them had tried to use the more positive coping strategy that included increased exercise, use of humor, seeking the support of peers and using stress management techniques. Many utilized the negative strategy, that of less exercise, eating more food or eating less food, sleeping more or less, drinking alcoholic beverages and craving sweets.

"Just as sports psychologists work with athletes to help them deal with the stress of competition, we are seeing compelling evidence for teaching judges the same constructive and health-conducive techniques for managing their stress," Duda says.

Her findings were presented at the 1995 USA Gymnastics National Congress.

CONTACT: Duda, (765) 494-3172; Internet:


Sources: Kathy Kelly, (317) 237-5050
Joan L. Duda, (765) 494-3172; Internet:

Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; home: (765) 474-3741; Internet:

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