Mental Blocks and Your Brain | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Mental Blocks and Your Brain

Welcome to the Q and A with Coach Rebecca. I’m here to answer your questions about all things performance, youth sport, parenting, and mostly the ideal mindset for performance. I am a high performance coach and my specialty is working with athletes age 8 to 18 on unlocking that mind-body connection so that you can become the very best athlete possible, which allows you to be happier, healthier, and more successful. I do this in a couple of different ways:

  • If you’re looking for some help in this area, I do one on one coaching
  • I also have a complete online mental toughness training center, which is getting a huge facelift right now. I’m super excited, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about that after I go into today’s topic.


Mental Blocks in Athletesmental blocks

I’ll dive into our topic of the day. I do 90% of my work with clients on this. It’s mental blocks. For those of you who are not familiar with what mental blocks are exactly, mental blocks happens to gymnasts, trampolinists, ice skaters, divers, baseball players and tennis players. Essentially it’s when you’ve done a skill over and over, you’ve done it repeatedly. Maybe it’s a simple skill, maybe it’s something scary, but typically it’s not the scariest skills, but something will happen where you can’t do it anymore. For some reason, it just won’t happen. I’ve seen it happen with tennis players: when they’re serving for the point, they cannot serve. Something goes horribly wrong. It happens with golfers where they have a short putt, and then they tense up, and it won’t work. I see it happen with gymnasts where they have a skill, a lot of the time are backward skills, or giants on the bar, something that’s scary, but usually it’s something that they’ve done before. All of the sudden they start to go, and boom, it’s like they’re hitting a wall. All these emails from parents are like, “How can I get my kid to try harder? How can I get my kid to push through this?” That is not the question that we should be asking. I’m going to give you guys a little crash course in overcoming mental blocks so that you’ll have a better idea of what that phenomenon actually is. I will specifically talk about gymnastics, because that was my sport, and that is where most of my clients really come up against this. But please, if you’re in a different sport and you can relate, feel free to change my examples to fit your situation.

Overcoming Mental Blocks

The Creeping up of Fear

One thing I hear a lot is this sensation that the fear is coming out of nowhere. Fear is this beast that hides in a bush that’s just going to jump up and get you whenever it feels like it. It takes all your skills away, and you’re just going to be there sad by yourself not doing anything. I’m amazed at how many kids I talk to and they’re like, “I just don’t know why it happens, and I don’t know when it’s going to happen, and I’m scared that if I do all this work to get my skills back that they’re just going to disappear again.” What I’ve come to realize is that it’s actually within your control. There is something that you can always do, and it’s not just this unpredictable beast in a bush, it’s instead more like a domino effect. You’ve got this whole series of dominoes, that once they’ve all fallen down, then you’ve got this seemingly insurmountable fear issue. There’s always a first domino, and always something that starts the fear. There’s always something, and it doesn’t have to necessarily be a fall. That’s why people get confused. “My kid has never fallen on this event. I don’t know what her problem is. I don’t know why she won’t just go for the skill, or I don’t know why she won’t just do it.” The thing that’s happening is that your brain is actually physically preventing your body from going in those situations. It doesn’t matter how much the coach is yelling at you, it doesn’t matter how important the meet is tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how bad you want it, if your brain is not letting your body go, there’s nothing you can do.

The Domino Effect

Well, I’m going to tell you what you can do, but you can’t force it. Some people have actually had the experience where they’re at a competition, and it’s really important, and they actually can force their brain to make their body do the skill, but then it doesn’t last. Because it doesn’t actually help you solve the problem. Those first dominoes, they can be things like you’re trying to tumble, and something feels weird. Like, “Oh that was a weird turn. That kind of spooked me.” Then you’re like, “Okay, fine, whatever.” Then you try maybe another one and you fall, or maybe it’s okay but you still are feeling strangely like you’re lacking confidence. Then you kind of push that down, and you don’t listen to it, and then you try it again, you try it again and you hit wall. You’re like, “What is going on with this skill?” You try it again, and boom, you hit a wall again. Then you’re kind of over analyzing:

  • What should I be doing here?
  • Should I change this?
  • Should I try that?

Then you go and try that and you hit a wall again.

That Voice on Your Head is Ruining Your Confidence

Your confidence is shrinking and shrinking, and your anxiety is going up, and then the frustration typically with coaches, or with teammates, they’re like, “Come one dude, just go.” It’s all just ramping up to the point where finally the coach will give you a, “Fine, just stop doing it, we’ll come back to it.” They throw this kind of guilt shame feeling on you about not being able to do it, which you’ve already got going, because feel like you should be able to go. That whole sequence of events, it seems like it just came out of nowhere, and happened, and all of the sudden you can’t go. That’s what it seems like. What’s really happened is that you didn’t listen to your brain. There was a teeny tiny little whisper coming from your brain that was, “Whoa there, for some reason I don’t feel confident right now in this skill.” That’s all it is. It doesn’t mean, “Whoa there, you’re going to have to spend the next year and a half being afraid of this skill.” It’s just, “I don’t feel confident right now in this skill for today.”

Try Listening to the Voice

What I like to teach my clients to do is to start listening to that little voice in your brain that’s there to keep you safe. Your brain will stop your body from going if it sense one of two things:

  • The first thing is if your brain senses the possibility of pain. Of course, if you’ve ever been injured on a skill, then that’s pretty obvious that your brain is not going to want you to go and get injured again.
  • Then the other is the fear of the unknown. That’s super vague. It’s like, “Okay, what’s unknown and it’s what’s known?” Well I boil that down to confidence. If your confidence is not high enough, then your brain is going to go, “Things could go wrong here, so we’re just going to go ahead and not let you go body. Sorry, we’re not going to go for that, because I don’t think that there’s enough confidence here to try it, so we’re just going to skip this skill.” No matter how hard you push it’s not going to work.


Compromise with Your Brain, and Your Coach

How do you start listening to your brain instead of ignoring it? What people typically do is they go, “Gosh brain, come one. You’re getting in my way. I really need to do this skill right now today, in this certain way.” When your brain is like, “Forget you,” and it crosses it’s arms and becomes a five year old with his heels dug in, and goes, “Fine then I’m not doing anything. I’m not going to do your back walk over on the beam. I’m not going to do your giants. You’re not even going to do a kip today, because I’m so mad that you’re not listening to me.” Instead of being mad at your brain, what you need to do is start going, “Hey brain, how are you doing? What do you need right now? Do you need a spot? Okay, let’s get you a spot. Do you need a mat? Why don’t we get a mat? Why don’t we go ask for a mat? Would you like to go on the tumble track and work that for just a couple minutes and build your confidence back up? Okay, let’s do that.”

Compromising with Your Coaches

Now here’s the problem, you can’t always go do that, because your coach might be like, “You don’t need to do that. We don’t have time for that. Just go try the thing.” In that situation I actually advise my kids to not necessarily listen to their coach. I know that all this stuff is super controversial, and I was coach, I would of hated it if a kid was like, “I’m not doing that, I’m sorry.” That’s not what we’re doing, it’s not like, “No, I’m going to be a jerk to my coach.” It’s actually walking over to the coach, and this can be hard for kids who are people pleasers, or really don’t like to rock boat, but actually walking over to the coach, and tapping them on the shoulder, and saying, “Hey coach, for some reason I’m not feeling confident on this skill today. Would you be willing to give a spot or two so I can rebuild?” Or, “Would it be okay if I went to the tumble track and just tried a few so that I can get my brain feeling a little bit more confident.”

Communicate to Yourself, Your Coaches and Your Parents

Your coach might look at you like, “What are you talking about?” They might spot you, but ideally if you know exactly what you need, which in those moments when something feels funky, or you feel afraid and you hit a wall, if you do it more than twice, that’s it. There’s not going to be any forcing it. Your brain has already taken over. You have to back it up and go to a different progression. You have to communicate that, and coaches have to let the kid back it up. Parents, you have to let the kid move at a snail’s pace. I was talking to a woman earlier who was like, “My kid is like, ‘I need this mat, now I need half a mat, oh my gosh, now I need this mat, I need another mat.'” Well yeah, good for her. She does need those mats, and let her use them until she can get over the hump of the fear. At which point she can start phasing them out and building confidence, and then she’s going to be back in good shape. There are lots of kids who are super talented, or learn skills really fast. What happens is then they have something that derails them. There are different things that can derail them. They don’t know how to go back to the beginning and start over a little bit. Then, parents are, they don’t want to support their kid through this process. Then here’s the big issue is that, okay, so let’s say I get my skills back. I have these mental blocks, I work through it, I get all my skills back, and then it comes back again. That fear monster jumps out of the bush and gets me again.

Take it Slow and Calm Down

I just was working with a girl who was moving through her progressions faster than I had ever seen anybody do it. Which should have been a clue. Like okay, we need to actually slow down and calm down. Then, she had had all this pressure like, “Oh I’m getting all my skills, I have to do all the skills ever, and I have to do them all right now,” then she ended up falling. She didn’t hurt herself, but she spooked herself pretty. Then mom is like, “Oh my gosh, we’re back at square one.” You know what? We’re not back at square one, this is an opportunity. Any time you hit that wall, you have to stop and go, “What was that little voice telling me before I took that turn?” I’m guessing the little voice in there was telling you, “I need a little bit more confidence. I need a little something before I go. It doesn’t feel right.” If it doesn’t feel right, that is okay. That has to be okay. I know, of course, if you’re training at the elite level you do not have time to stop and go rebuild a skill. But for those of us who are in gymnastics in a mid-range level, who are finding themselves having issues with mental blocks, you’ve got to get in the habit of allowing your brain to be in charge. Because here’s the thing, your brain is in charge whether you like it or not. If you don’t let it be in charge, it’s going to take charge by stopping you from going.

Your Job: Listen to Your Brain

Your job, anybody who is watching or listening, if you are struggling with mental blocks, your job, just for a week, try it. I want you to listen to your brain. What is your brain telling you? Not what is your parent telling you, not what is your coach telling you, not what do you want to do. It’s what does your brain need? I want you to just ask yourself that question any time that you start to feel hesitant, or especially if you hit wall, or you freeze, or your balk. Ask your brain, “What do you need?” Then your job is to get out of your comfort zone and get your brain what it needs, even if you feel like you shouldn’t need that. Try that out, and then that’s the foundation. Once you’ve got that in place, the ability to actually sit and listen to your brain, so your brain can start to feel like, “All right, body is listening. Body is cooperating, then I’ll give a little. I’ll try a little something.” Then you start to make some momentum. That’s when you can address things like the negative talk, or the self-esteem, or any of those other things that might seem like they’re causing the problem, those are definitely tied in. A lot of the times when people are getting blocks, and losing them, getting them, losing them, there are other things at play. Maybe it’s something going on at home, maybe it’s a coach, maybe it’s bullying, maybe it’s something totally unrelated that has them stressed out. Those are things that do need to get untangled too, but really everybody, the first thing you have to do is just start listening to your brain.


If you are blocking…

I only want you to balk twice before you back it up. If you balk more than twice, your confidence has gone down to the point of no return for that day. I mean it’s not no return, but really, it just makes everything so much harder.

If you’re balking twice…

Just back it up. Listen to your brain. Get past those mental blocks.   Lori says, “It’s so comforting, there’s someone out there that gets our kids.” I was this kid, and you know what? I still in life today as an adult come up against fear. It is so hard you guys, because once you start making some progress you want to just dive in full out. You want to be like, “Great I’m going try everything.” Then you hit a wall, you end up having to take steps back, and it can feel hopeless, but it is not hopeless. That’s just your brain communicating to you. Your brain is telling, “Okay, we need to back it up. You went a little too fast.” That’s all it is, there’s no judgment, there’s no emotion, there’s no, “You’re a bad person and why are you behaving that way?” It’s just, “Hey, what does your brain need? Cool, no big deal, let’s get you that.”

Wrap Up and Website Update

All right guys, so if you have any questions you can always email me, I am completely reworking the Perform Happy site right now. I’m super excited. It’s going to be way more user friendly, it’s going to be fun, I’m actually creating a seven day challenge on building confidence, and five day challenge on working through fear, along with the six trainings I have on overcoming fear, and then all these bonuses like training for parents, and a whole … Tons of trainings on finding your flow. If anybody has free time this summer, or of course like who has free time ever? Or if you have a mobile device and you can take it with you on your travels, I would love to have you guys in the Perform Happy community. Look for an email if you’re on my list for the relaunch specials coming up. Reach out if you need me and I will see you again next week. Bye guys.

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