Gym Dogs make mental preparation a priority

While one Gym Dog is performing during a meet, at least one of the other five athletes in the lineup is likely standing on the periphery with her eyes closed.

She is taking just a few minutes to herself, filtering out the crowd noise and riff-raff.

Her body follows her muscle memory as she runs through her routine in her head.

That visualization is a crucial part in the Gym Dogs’ mental preparation, in which coach Danna Durante puts a great deal of stock.

“Some coaches think that’s hog wash, but I absolutely believe that it is what makes a team great. It can take them from good to great,” she said. “Asking them to compete the same 15 meets in a row, there has to be a very strong mental training routine and the ability to flush out everything, especially when you make a mistake.”

And for the No. 6 Gym Dogs, whose meet tonight against Missouri was canceled, mental toughness is pivotal at this point of the season, especially on balance beam.

Durante is always trying to get into the heads of her gymnasts, attempting to locate their insecurities in the gym and eliminate them, mostly for the less-seasoned Gym Dogs, who have had to count a fall on beam in two of the last three meets.

“Until they vocalize it, it’s kind of like me beating my head against a wall going, ‘OK what’s going on? I know you have the ability. I see you, but I also see this mistake every time,” she said.

The second-year coach said she had a breakthrough with a couple struggling gymnasts, whom she didn’t name, in practice this week, giving her a better insight into what demons they are battling.

“I’m coaching the technical, which most of the time is not the issue,” she said. “They’ve been doing these skills and these things since they were little bitty. I know they know how to do them, I know they know how to hit them and I know they know that it’s important, too, and they’re working hard to do to that.”

Junior Sarah Persinger made her season debut two weeks ago, posting a 9.775 against Kentucky. But she showed signs of a struggle last week against Alabama, falling and settling for a 9.3.

“I had a lot of confidence going into the routine and once I landed my dismount, I was immediately trying to figure out what in the world (happened),” Persinger said. “But my foot just slipped, so those things happen. You have to take it and learn from it and go back into practice and just work hard and move on.”

Durante said one of the biggest hurdles for a gymnast can be letting go of a bad performance, especially if that performance is rehashed ad nauseam. Reeling in a fleeting sense of confidence requires patience and time, she said.

“I think every gymnast has gone through that,” sophomore Mary Beth Box said. “In club, I would say I’ve gone through it a million times. If you want it enough and you have the desire for it, you can manage to overcome it.”

Durante, whose team competes at Auburn on Feb. 21, said she reminds her gymnasts often of the quality performances, in practice, during meets and through text messages. She said the more she reminds them of the good, the more likely they are to embrace and foster their confidence. And when it comes through, it’s all worth it.

“I kind of feel like a kid in a candy story, high-fiving when they come off,” Durante said. “Hooping and hollering and I usually follow it back up with a, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ Just kind of keep it fresh in their mind so they remember all the work they put into it and then how it felt when they came off and they did it.”

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