Red Rocks Coach Tom Farden Talks Psychology Of Gymnastics
Apr 6, 2023, 3:13 PM
SALT LAKE CITY – The Red Rocks are about to embark on their 47th straight trip to Nationals next week and while it is a great physical feat, it might be an even greater mental feat if you ask Tom Farden.
Admittedly, it is easy to get sucked into how amazing the physical aspect of gymnastics is. Not only is there incredible strength involved, but absurd power and control to be able to stop, start, and switch directions at the drop of a hat while making it look “pretty”.
However, the psychology of gymnastics is also impressive and arguably the most important part of a sport that if you aren’t in the right headspace can become dangerous very quickly.
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Physicality Vs. Psychology
Farden says preseason is where he and his team really hone in on what the athletes can do physically, but postseason is where the psychology is hopefully starting to take over.
“Their minds are everything right now,” Farden said. “You can see in terms of, at the end, it’s not about whether they can do their gymnastics. That was at the beginning- the physicality of gymnastics was in January and maybe for the first block of the season. That first month we are trying new skills, new passes. Are they physically ready for this? Did we prepare them properly with the amount of pounding for the leg events especially? At the end, their mental fortitude is critical. We’ve been in some tight meets toward the end here and the athletes have responded well. It’s a never-die attitude and I think that is eternalized by feeding off of each other and the culture of the program.”
As a gymnastics coach, Farden also noted the importance of really knowing and understanding his athletes and their “tells” when something might be off, or when something great is about to happen.
“Some athletes it’s the leadup of practice,” Farden said. “I guess, it’s very individualized because there are athletes that what you see in practice is what you see in the meet, and then there are athletes that you have to come up with some things. For instance, Sage, I have her do three deep breaths before she goes- we’ve developed that together. What works for you? Does this work for you? Having those open conversations- these are all things we work on in the preseason. It is not like we get to the Pac-12s and go, ‘hey, I’ve got an idea’. These rituals are designed and developed through preseason and the first half of the season.”
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“So many times the gut feeling is based upon evidence,” Farden continued of when he does have to make last-minute lineup changes. “I’m not a savant, ya know what I mean? There is generally some evidence leading up, whether it’s the week of practice or their warmup. It’s usually something of that nature. I would be remiss if I said it wasn’t a group decision too. Often times I’ll go to that event coach, and we’ll have a discussion. Either they bring it up or I’ll bring it up that something is a little off. We aren’t always right.”
Blocking Out Noise While Still Being Part Of A Team
One of the more interesting aspects of college gymnastics is that the athletes have to be very “in their own bubble” while also being a “team player”. On one hand, coaches develop lineups with the intent of building upon energy and momentum. On the other hand, a gymnast also needs to be able to tune out when a teammate makes a mistake, or the dreaded injury happens so as to not have errors start piling up.
“That is a little bit of an art to be an individual and then be able to contribute to the team event,” Farden said. “Most of these athletes came here and were the individual so I think that is a growth area for a lot of college athletes. They come here and have to develop that whole team mentality. Some team athletes were fortunate enough to get international assignments on particular teams for U.S.A. or Amelie was with Great Britain, but if you didn’t have that coming here it has always been for yourself. That’s developed and a point of emphasis from our staff to develop that. From the staff, it also goes to the leadership and what they can pull out of each other. We all know peer leadership is the strongest leadership.”
Peaking Right On Time
Getting a team to peak at just the right moment is another mental-heavy obstacle with physicality mixed in that Farden says every coach is chasing every year. You can have the best formula that worked the year before, only to have it not work for your current team.
“Peaking is an art and each team is different,” Farden said. “You literally have to take every year and look at your personnel, move backwards from Nationals and try to prescribe the right things and be very delicate. Especially on the leg events because they are three events. Your legs are involved in beam. Your legs are involved in vault and floor. Not so much on bars, just the landing, but how do you prescribe that? Peaking at the right time? That’s what alludes coaches from winning a title or missing a Final Four. Whatever it is- it alludes people because you want to try and get it right and you’ve got to hold it. You have to hold this from Pac-12s on, and that is hard.”
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Utah seems to be on a very good “peaking” trajectory since their gutsy Pac-12 Title win that has since resulted in two 198-plus scores at Regionals last week and the Red Rock’s 47th appearance at Nationals next week. Still, Farden knows they haven’t arrived yet and noted how critical this “off week” has been for his team and what they want to accomplish next.
“This week was incredibly important on what we do,” Farden said. “It parlays into next week and next week is a very short week. We have one practice at home and one practice there. Then we rip. This week is all about keeping them strong, mentally sharp and in a rhythm, so they are ready to go to battle on Thursday.”
Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @BodkinKSLsports