Caitlin Brown overcomes mental barriers to reach physical success

Kevin Horner

On top of a mat inside of the Classic Gymnastics’ facility sat Caitlin Brown — the uneven bars ominously looming over her seemingly incapable body.

In tears, she struggled to approach the apparatus she had conquered numerous times before. Her mind had rendered her powerless.

A frustrated, yet determined Bryon Hough urged her to continue practicing — recognizing that time was running too short for any sort of hiatus. It was the summer before Brown was set to leave for Ames.

“I can’t do it,” Brown said.

She knew perhaps more than anyone the importance of perfecting her abilities in preparation for Division I gymnastics. Her résumé and years of experience attested to her capability of completing this routine, yet her mind convinced her otherwise. Hough put his foot down.

“Then quit,” Hough said. “Call them right now and tell them you’re not coming.”


A four-year-old Caitlin Brown entered the gymnasium alongside her mother — witnessing the elements of gymnastics in action for the first time in her young life. For a young girl who would eventually develop into an All-American gymnast, Brown participated in a peculiar fashion.

Instead of actively participating with the other children, she quietly observed near the periphery of the gymnasium.

“When I watched her, she didn’t seem that excited,” said Cathy Thompson-Brown, Caitlin’s mother. “She just sat there and wouldn’t do anything. If the coaches tried to encourage her, she just said ‘No.’”

For a mother who had watched her firstborn attempt to climb onto the kitchen table at every open opportunity, this reserved demeanor could not have been expected. As a result, she anticipated a short-lived gymnastics career for her young daughter.

However, to her surprise, Caitlin had an unanticipated response following the conclusion of the open gym.

“Mommy, I love gymnastics,” Brown said. “I want to come back.”

Thus, her perhaps unconventional journey in the world of gymnastics was underway. The young native of Apple Valley, Minn. was still unaware of the road ahead.

The decision to pursue gymnastics led Brown to TAGS Gymnastics — the gym where Hough coached at the time. One significant element that Hough and Brown’s parents recognized early on was her lack of inherent talent in comparison with some of the other gymnasts.

As a result, Brown had to unearth different elements in her repertoire in order to stay on pace with the athletes. Fortunately for her, what she lacked in physical ability she compensated for in mental strength and determination.

“At the gym, the kids would go on a rotation,” said Mike Brown, Caitlin’s father. “At the younger age, kids would like to chatter a little bit, but Caitlin would just jump right back in line. She just got more reps in, and she worked harder. I think that made the big difference.”

Despite these compensations, the absence of that natural athletic disposition eventually caught up to Brown, and adversity began to take its toll.


Brown stared down at the beam through the lens of her tear-soaked eyes. She was frozen.

Her body was poised and alert, yet she could not continue her routine. A factor outside of her physical aptitude was restricting her ability to execute difficult maneuvers: her mind. As many young gymnasts experience to some extent, Brown was experiencing the effects of balking.

“Balking is hard for people to understand,” Brown said. “You’re afraid of a skill, so you won’t do a skill. You’ll stop in the middle of a skill.”

Essentially, balking is experiencing a set of mental blocks that prevent a gymnast from completing, or even attempting a certain event or maneuver. It produces a sense of inability based on fear, which almost always is irrational. 

“I had no idea [what I was afraid of], and that was the problem,” Brown said. “[I] couldn’t stop it because [I] couldn’t address the problem. That’s what was so difficult about it. We didn’t know.”

Some level of balking is common early on with gymnasts, but unlike the majority of those cases, Caitlin’s mental blocks increased and grew more consistent with time. What began as sporadic frustration developed into a daily battle.

Brown’s aforementioned lack in natural talent only heightened the issue. While innately gifted gymnasts could lean on that basis of physical ability to help overcome this mentality, she could not. 

“I think a lot of [the balking] had to do with her body didn’t have that natural kinesthetic awareness that a lot of athletes will have,” Hough said. “The sport scared her when she couldn’t feel it.”

This constant struggle waged war with Brown’s attempts to develop as a gymnast. Day in and day out, the balking would resurface whether it was balancing atop the beam or dangling from the bars. Often two or three months would pass before she would return to a certain event — the irrational fear actively manipulating her mind.

This combination of obstacles to Caitlin’s success as a gymnast may have diminished the hope of numerous club coaches, but not Bryon Hough. Hough exhibited an immediate interest in Brown and persisted in his instruction — a battle that many would have been unwilling to fight.

After multiple years of consistent adversity and perseverance, Hough began to recognize the rewards of his time and effort, reaffirming his decision to invest in Brown.

“By the time she was a sophomore and maybe even a freshman, I knew it was there,” Hough said. “I was all over her. I was like, ‘You’re going to college [to compete]. You can do this.’”

Due to Brown’s challenging restrictions, Hough had to implement various approaches in an attempt to diminish the effects of balking to continue Caitlin’s development. Multiple times this manifested itself in the form of various blocks and stations around equipment to get her body to ‘feel it.’

Other times, Hough would have to fabricate success for Brown in order to overshadow that lack of self-confidence in her abilities. He had to create confidence.

“I would set up a lesson plan or drills that make her feel success,” Hough said. “Sometimes it was a false sense of success, but inside of her head, she could finish that assignment. Even if that progress was so minute, that’s the only thing we had to get her to focus on.”

With time, although she may have not immediately recognized it, Brown displayed progression. Even if she would balk in practice or warm-ups preceding a competition, she had the ability to ‘flip a switch’ and suppress those mental blocks when it mattered most.

Brown was a four-time Level 10 Junior Olympic qualifier — only failing to qualify once as a Level 10 gymnast. She saw her fair share of success at the National Championships, finishing as high as second overall in the beam competition. Brown also claimed victory at the 2010 regional competition, which resulted in a scholarship offer from Jay Ronayne and the ISU gymnastics program.

Even following these successes, balking continued to invade Brown’s mind. That momentary panic continued to resurface despite her knowledge of her abilities as a gymnast. And unlike a physical injury, no clear-cut recipe existed for overcoming it.

“It’s a lot more discouraging [than a physical problem],” Brown said. “It’s more confusing because you don’t know what it is. You don’t know why. It’s not like, ‘I sprained my ankle. Here’s what I need to do. Here’s what I can do. Here’s what I can’t do.’”

This intangibility made progression difficult, yet progression occurred. Triggers were recognized and in turn, Caitlin continued to take steps in the right direction. However, despite this recognizable progression, any time the balking would reemerge, her mind overshadowed this progression with that hauntingly familiar fear.

Although Hough and other outside sources could identify the advancement Caitlin had made, she could not. On several occasions, she was ready to cut her gymnastics career short — unable to continue this consistent battle. Her parents always supported her, her coach always pushed her and she had always overcome her momentary breakdowns.

But this time was different.

In just a few short months, Hough, the only coach she ever knew, would no longer be there to motivate her. She was about to embark on this journey alone — alone with her ever-manipulating thoughts. Perhaps this time quitting was the only option.


Those were not the words she had expected to hear from her lifelong gymnastics coach. After all, his influence had played a largely significant role in even getting her to this point.

She was taken aback by his blunt ultimatum. Never before had she witnessed Hough’s coaching manifest itself in this way. The shock of being presented with the potential consequences of her current desires drove Brown to introspection. Is this what she really wanted?

No one was forcing her to continue down this path. Her parents simply wanted what was best for their daughter, whether that involved collegiate gymnastics or not. The decision was completely her’s, and in the depths of her mind, past those deceiving mental blocks, Caitlin knew what she wanted.

“I think that deep down I knew that I didn’t want [to quit],” Brown said. “I would say that I wanted to be done, but I could never get myself to actually do it. I think I just knew deep down that I loved this and I wanted to get through it. I wasn’t ready to give it up yet.”


Michelle Shealy, a sophomore at the time, looked on as Brown, the lone representation from the incoming freshman class, began showcasing her skills in practice. This was not any ordinary freshman gymnast.

“Caitlin stood out to me from the get-go,” Shealy said. “I watched her in the first day of her practice, and she was pulling out all of her release moves on bars and connections. I think she even did a full routine on the first day. So I was like, ‘OK. This girl’s got it.’”

Shealy and the rest of Brown’s new teammates were not the only ones who took notice of Caitlin.

“I was so impressed with her [as a freshman],” said ISU assistant coach Katie Minasola. “The way she practiced beam, the way she performed beam, it was breathtaking.”

Brown, as if she were aware of these first impressions, made an immediate impact in her freshman season. On the way to earning the Team Newcomer of the Year award, she competed in three of four events — vault, beam and floor — in Iowa State’s final 11 meets. 

Perhaps more importantly for Brown, however, was the lack of influence balking now had on her. What had once prevented her from attempting a routine for upward of three months was now becoming an afterthought. 

“[Balking] showed up every once in a while throughout the years, but I could stop it now whereas before it was like a downward spiral,” Brown said. “I had learned how to control it and stop it.” 

Now perhaps less inhibited than ever before, Brown continued her ascent rapidly. She earned All-Big 12 Championship Team honors on the balance beam in her sophomore season, despite an early setback with a concussion. She also went on to receive the Janet Anson ‘Key’ Gymnast Award at the conclusion of that season.

It was now evident balking had become a thing of the past for Brown. She eventually became co-captain of the team with Shealy, and given this newfound freedom of mind, could focus her energy more completely on what had always been her ultimate goal — the success of the team.

“The team comes first; the individual comes last,” Brown said. “[I wanted] to help people because helping them helps the team. The ultimate goal is the team. That’s the ultimate priority.”

Driven by determination and passion, Brown led her team. Overcoming balking and those mental blocks had produced a mental toughness inside her that now was unrestricted. Her mind, which was the very thing that had inhibited her development, now granted her the drive she needed to lead the ISU gymnastics team.

Her greatest weakness had become her greatest strength.

As time went on, Brown began to develop into the leader her teammates and coaches needed her to be. After qualifying and competing at the NCAA Championships in 2014, she commenced her final season as the lone senior representation. For the rest of the team, Brown was all that they needed.

“Caitlin Brown is the face of ISU gymnastics,” said freshman Briana Ledesma. “It’s going to be hard to go on without her, but as a team, we’re going to try to fill her shoes. She wasn’t just one person. She was the team.”

Based on Brown’s consistent team-first mentality and her large role as a member of that team, she pursued her own perfection with the ultimate goal of benefitting her teammates. The result? Two-time All-American honors on the beam — a lifelong goal fulfilled.

The adversity had been overcome. The peak of the seemingly unscalable mountain had been reached.

“It feels really good because coming into college, I didn’t think I would make it in college gymnastics,” Brown said. “I almost didn’t come because I didn’t think I could do it. I really found out that you can do anything that you want to.”

The accolades, the success on paper, the promotion of the ISU program — Mike and Cathy Brown were very proud of their daughter’s accomplishments. Yet, these awards and honors were overshadowed, in their eyes, by the young woman Caitlin had become — the kind, caring leader who always put her teammates before herself. 

Her parents recognized that although these awards may be forgotten, what will stick with Caitlin for the rest of her life is her benevolent character and her ability to overcome all that life throws in her direction. 

“At the end of the weekend [at the NCAA Championships], I gave her a big hug,” Mike said. “I said, ‘You know what, Caitlin? The thing I’m most excited about is to see what you tackle in life next because I know it’s going to be amazing.”

Thus, her story continues.