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Breaking Through a Mental Block

There seems to be a lot of discussion going on with Mental Blocks. Some coaches wonder if they are even real or just an imagined phenomenon; how can a kid tumble one day and just forget how to do it the next day. Why do we see Mental Blocks mostly with tumbling? Why won’t they just go for it? They also deliberate if they are real, then who or what is to blame. Is it the coach, the cheerleader, the team, the parent, or is it the training?

There seems to be a lot of discussion going on with Mental Blocks. Some coaches wonder if they are even real or just an imagined phenomenon; how can a kid tumble one day and just forget how to do it the next day. Why do we see Mental Blocks mostly with tumbling? Why won’t they just go for it? They also deliberate if they are real, then who or what is to blame. Is it the coach, the cheerleader, the team, the parent, or is it the training?

Mental Blocks are a thing, but they are often misunderstood.

Growing up in gymnastics I remember a few of my teammates having Mental Blocks, we didn’t call them that back then. I watched as they stood in the corner and attempted to make themselves go for a tumbling pass. They would stand and stand and stand. Sometimes they would walk away and then walk back into place and try again. Sometimes they would start to run, and then quickly stop. A few times they got themselves to throw the round off and then they balked on the back handspring and land on their back. They would get up a little embarrassed, but more confused, angry, and mostly frustrated.

At first the coach (and sometimes even the parents) would yell and threaten to move them down a level. When that didn’t work, they would punish with conditioning. When that didn’t work, they would bribe with ice cream, new leotards, or other rewards. When that didn’t work, they would bargain with them, “Just do one” or “I’ll stand right here and if you need me I promise I will reach in and spot you”. When that didn’t work, they would give up and label the kid as a Mental or Head Case.

Things aren’t much different today, except there seems to be a Mental Block Epidemic. It seems to be spreading and athletes are scared to “catch” it.

We all know what happens when someone catches a Mental Block. We see their struggle and frustration. We know that some don’t make it through their block and end their careers on a negative note. Catching a Mental Block seems to be a scary thing and sometimes if the fear of catching it is large enough, they will successfully catch it.

Mental Blocks are real, but the good news is that it isn’t contagious and you can't catch it.

I work with many athletes training to overcome their fears. Each athlete is different and we create each approach according to their needs, but here is a systematic process of how we work to break through Mental Blocks.

Step one-

It is important to always start by asking the athletes if they WANT to break through. Sometimes an athlete may have a mental block because they don’t want to do cheer anymore and they can’t seem to muster up the mental energy needed to focus on tumbling. When they are stressed, they truly don’t have it within them to fight for something they don’t want.

If the athlete doesn’t want to overcome their Mental Block, they must know that it will be okay. Take the opportunity to help them understand that cheer is what they do not who they are and they can choose to do anything. They don’t have to cheer. Make sure they don’t leave cheer thinking they were a failure.

If they do WANT to overcome the Mental Block, then continue to step two.

Step two-

Once the athlete decides they WANT to overcome their Mental Block, have them explain why. Do they want to tumble again because they think they should or their parents, coaches, or teammates think they should?

Breaking thorough is difficult and will be challenging and only an athlete that is doing it for themselves will be able to have long lasting results. Have the athlete create their “why”. This will be their intentional purpose to put the work and effort into the process.

Step three-

Find out where their Mental Block began. Then dig deeper and find out why. They don’t need to know the exact moment, but there is a reason when and why it began.

  • Did they balk in the middle?
  • Did they watch someone else balk?
  • Were they scared?
  • Was there too much pressure?
  • Did they feel they were improving too fast?
  • Did things feel “off”?
  • Did they start to overthink and worry about it and then it ended up happening?

Have them describe the situation in as much detail as possible, who was watching, what were they thinking, did they warm up enough, did they feel ready to go, were they scared.

This step can help them put closure on what happened and how they can protect themselves from doing it in the future.

If they watched someone balk, what was their first thought? Were they scared? Did they start to worry if they would balk? When they are worried about balking, did they start to have anxiety about not wanted to balk? Did they thought start to grow and grow? Did it grow to the point where they actually thought so much about balking or not balking that they ended up, well balking?

The same downward spiral can happen with most of their reasons. Whatever the reason, if they started to worry about getting a Mental Block, started to focus on not getting a Mental Block, they probably focused on the Mental Block so deeply therefore fulfilling their fear.

The next step is to know how their thoughts and focus fed their fear and created their Mental Block. The good news is that we can help them change their thoughts to break through.

Step four-

At this point we stop labeling the athlete as having a Mental Block and we explain that this is a challenge. We are going to help them learn the tools they need to overcome and breakthrough this challenge.

There are basic Mental Training principles that are what we consider tools. These tools are just that, tools. The cheerleader will be able to use these tools to work.

Basic Mental Training Tools:

  1. Empowering Self-Talk

Self-Talk is the thoughts we say to ourselves. If I think to myself that I will never overcome my fear, then I will start to believe that I will never overcome my fears. If I start to believe that I will never overcome my fears, then I will have behaviors consistent to those beliefs.

My thoughts want to be focused on what I want to do and not what I don’t want to do. We also want our Self-Talk to be believable. If I think I am never going to overcome my fears, changing my Self-Talk to I will overcome my fears today, might not be something I believe. But I do believe that I can keep working until I find a way to overcome my fears and I do believe that I am capable of putting in the work.

Coaches will also want to make sure they say comments or statements that are focused on effort and work and what they can do.

 

  1. Focus

Focus means they are thinking about what they want to do before and during the exact time they are doing it. Many times the cheerleader tumbles in a daydream. They know what they are supposed to do, but they aren’t actively thinking about what they are doing when they are doing it. This is also a reason why they may have fears, may be inconsistent, or don’t go at all.

What do they want to do? Do they want to tumble, great! Focus on HOW to tumble. HOW to do a round off, HOW to do a back handspring, and HOW to do a tuck.

Break each skill down to the fundamentals of the technique, feeling, or rhythm of the skill. Have them talk through HOW to do each skill.

“I take two strong running steps into my hurdle. I lift my arms and reach long into my round off. I kick my leg over my head and snap my feet together and under me. I lift my chest into my back handspring. I push off my legs, look for the floor, and land in a strong handstand shape, where I snap my body into a hollow position, and reach my feet behind me for my punch. I stretch my body and jump high into the air with my arms by my ear and head in. I then lift my hips and pull my knees over my head rotating in a tuck position. I look for the landing, see my feet land on the floor. Land strong with my chest up and arms down by my side.”

While they are describing in detail HOW they are going to tumble, have them use words that use their senses. What do they hear, see, and feel? The more detailed the thoughts, the more they can be completely engulfed in focus.

When they are getting ready to tumble, they will use cue words to remind them of HOW they are going to tumble.

“Reach, snap, head, hips, look, strong.”

These Cues are reminders of HOW they are going to tumble:

Reach reminds them to reach in the round off.

Snap reminds them to snap their feet under them in the back handspring.

Head reminds them to keep their head in on the set.

Hips reminds them to lift their hips over their head on the flip.

Look reminds them to look for their landing.

Strong reminds them to land in a strong and solid landing position.

While they are prepping to go and during the tumbling pass, we want them to say these cue words.

 

  1. Refocusing after Distractions

Sometimes athletes think they must be 100% focused all the time. That’s a nice thing to think, but as humans, we aren’t going to be 100% of anything all of the time.

Athletes that think they have to think 100% positive thoughts or they should be 100% focused, feel like they are failing mental training when doubts or worries pop into their minds.

The truth is that we will be distracted at times and that is normal. It is more important to know how to become aware when they are distracted and learn to bring their focus back on track.

What are distractions? Distractions are anything that makes them worry, doubt, or adds pressure and stress. distractions can be external such as people walking in their way or internal such as thinking they are going to land on their head.

If the distraction is external and there is something they can do about it, they should do it. If they are worried someone will walk in their way, have them tell the coach, have a teammate stand and direct traffic away form the floor, or pick a different direction to tumble. Instead of worrying about a problem, teach them to find solutions to their worries.

If the distraction is internal, acknowledge the distraction and refocus on what they want to do (Empowering Self-Talk) and HOW to do it (Cues).

Use an anchor statement to stop the thought once they realize they are distracted. The coach can also use anchoring statements for the athlete and their team.

An anchor statement can stop the cheerleader when they realized they are distracted, such as “Stop, bring it back, keep fighting and working, I am one step closer.”  

With all of the tools, the first step is to become aware of their current Self-Talk and focus. Keep what works and change what doesn’t work.

Teaching the basic tools is the first part. There will be reasons why these tools will be difficult to apply. Changing negative Self-Talk into Empowering Self-Talk won't magically make the cheerleader go for it, but it will lead them in the right direction toward breaking through.

 

Step five-

Athletes who have heightened anxiety will need to work in an environment that will help them feel comfortable to trust themselves.

The coach working with these athletes will need to create a non-judgmental and completely loving environment. They will need to talk to the athlete with respect in a non-condescending, sarcastic, or hostile tone.

In order for the athlete to be vulnerable to accept their fears and work on overcoming them, they will need to completely trust their coach.

  • Do drills and explain what the drills work on and why you are having them do them.
  • Spot when you say you will, don’t trick the athlete.
  • Challenge them, but know when to back off.
  • Ask the cheerleader what they need from you.
  • Work on a variety of skills to show the athlete they are capable of learning new skills.
  • Focus and appreciate little accomplishments.

What works, try again. What doesn’t work, find out why and either fix it or try a new way. We are teaching them how to learn and solve their own problems. We want to create an environment that allows for them to work without breaking them down.

Step six-

The last piece of the puzzle is the athlete must trust themselves. If they trust they will do what they want to do, they will do it.

Trust will take time, work and patience. They must learn how to trust themselves.

  • They will use their Empowering Self-Talk to keep them thinking about what they want.
  • They will use their Focus tools to help them intentionally think about HOW to do it.
  • They will know when they are distracted and use their Anchor statements to refocus.

Think of their “Mental Block” as a brick wall. Before, they might have been trying to push it over or knock it down, but they couldn’t budge it. The harder they tried, the stronger the wall felt. Over time, they saw the wall as something that was too big and too hard for them to ever breakthrough.

And at that point, it was.

However, they didn’t have tools to use and now they do. The tools they have will help chip away at the wall. Every time they use a tool, the wall becomes weaker.

If they try to go for it, and they don’t, they will know what didn’t work and with that information they will become more educated and a little piece will be chipped off the wall. Regardless if they do it or not, they are learning. If they make a mistake, they are learning; the more they learn the more they will KNOW how to do their tumbling pass. The more they KNOW the more than can keep what works and adjust what doesn’t work.

If they KNOW what doesn’t work, they can try a new way until they find a way that does work. When they KNOW what does work, they can work and work until they are able to repeat and become consistent. When they KNOW how to do a skill and they KNOW they can repeat it, they will become more confident in themselves and they will learn how to trust themselves.

Eventually they will get to a point where the wall is weak enough to breakthrough. But they must work everyday and chip away at it, every day. Some days they will be able to chip away big pieces, other days they will chip away little pieces. But everyday they try will the tools, they will weaken the wall.

Everything they learn about their fear is power. That power gives them strength that strength is what they need to fight. We want them to learn how to fight for what they want.

We want to teach our athletes that challenges are not a bad thing. Just because they are faced with a challenge, doesn’t mean they are stuck. A challenge only means they will need to find a way to rise up and overcome.

When they learn how to solve their own challenges, they will be equipped with the ability to conquer anything they want.

Mental Blocks are just a challenge. They are just another opportunity to empower our athletes to overcome and breakthrough anything they want.

Good luck and remember to check out my book, Breaking Through a Mental Block. You can also check out my website https://getpsychedsports.com/. Feel free to email me at getmepsyched@gmail.com for any questions or comments.

Wendy Bruce Martin was a member of the 1992 Olympic team and 5x national team member. She has been involved in gymnastics for 37 years and Cheer for 12 years. She owns, GET PSYCHED Sports, and works with athletes from all over the world on Peak Performance and Mental Training.

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