SALT LAKE CITY — You wouldn’t know it watching the Red Rocks compete, that is unless you have a fantastic television or the best seats in the house, but before and during each of their events, they talk to themselves.
Not in a worrisome, crazed kind of way, but rather in a calming and focus-inducing tone.
Often, it is less of a conversation and more words or phrases, words like confidence, breathe, push or hips up.
For most gymnasts, it happens throughout the more intricate events, balance beam and uneven bars, though a keen observer will find some Red Rocks’ lips moving before floor exercise and vault.
These little utterances are known as cue words, and their purpose is simple — to guide a gymnast through the distractions and nerves of elite competition to her best possible routine.
“When I do my balance beam routine, you’ll see my mouth moving,” said Maddy Stover. "That's because I’m talking myself through my skills. I’m staying focused in on what I am doing and not paying attention to any external distractions.”
“When your adrenaline hits in the moment of a meet, everything is chaotic,” added Kari Lee. “Everything hits you at once and you can get kind of scattered. We have our cue words that we say to ourselves when we are in a tough environment, words that we can focus and really rely on.”
Cue words are not just to avoid outside distractions, however. Simple distraction from their surroundings could be accomplished by singing along to a song, which Lee noted some gymnasts do, or just blocking out the noise.
For many of the Red Rocks, cue words are much more instructional and are often inspired by their coaches.
“Robert (Ladanyi), Carly (Dockendorf), Megan (Marsden) or myself will give them a word that seemed to make a good connection,” said co-head coach Tom Farden. “That verbal connection seemed to fire the thoughts and relaxation or whatever they are supposed to do at that point (in their routine).
“With Kari, I told her one day that what I wanted her to do in a particular move was to be loose, not be stiff or rigid, and try to guide the skill. Now, her cue word is ‘loose’ when she heads into the skill. She tries to remind herself to be loose, so she can maximize that skill.”
“The coaches kind of help us come up with cue words, as does Nicole (Detling), our sports psychologist,” said Lee. “They kind of guide and teach us which direction we need to go to get the right cue words and when to use them.
“A cue word is like a correction,” she continued, "a quick correction that reminds me what I need to do. On beam, on my full turn, I’ll say ‘pull up.’ On my series, I’ll say to myself, ‘move back.’ On my aerial, I’ll say ‘push’ because I need to push over the top.”
Sometimes, cue words even remind gymnasts that they should breathe and provide a specific moment to do so during their routine.
“Breathing can be hard because you don’t really think about breathing,” said Lee. “Sometimes, especially when you are full of anxiety, you forget to breathe. That sounds terrible, but you can forget to breathe for a whole routine.”
Cue words also provide inspiration, an emotional boost.
“I use a lot of cue words, especially for beam,” said Alexia Burch. “One of them is confidence. I tell myself right before I get on the beam, ‘confidence.’ That is kind of how I get my mind ready to compete on beam. I have my own little (cue word) routine right before I do my routine, to keep my mind positive.”
The use of cue words doesn’t work for some. In the case of Tiffani Lewis and MyKayla Skinner, less is more.
“I definitely try to keep (my routines) more muscle memory,” said Lewis. “I try not to think too much or even too little. All of us have little keywords that we say before each routine or each skill, but even the words (for me) are more muscle memory.”Comment on this story
“I (use cue words) a little bit, but I don’t like to overthink things,” added Skinner. “I’ll use them maybe on a certain skill here or there. I only use the cue words I need to say to myself before my routine and then I just go.”
However they are used, cue words have proven to be a vital part of the Red Rocks' success.
“There are a lot of tools that they can use while they are going through their routines,” said Farden. “We strive to prepare them so that when they do compete, they can compete with confidence and compete like they have been there a thousand times before.”