Mental Blocks | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Topic: Helping Coaches get their athletes through Mental Blocks


About Me

Hi! Welcome to our weekly “Q&A with Coach Rebecca” session. My name is Rebecca Smith. I’m a high performance coach, and my specialty is helping kids and athletes age 8 to 18 figure out the mind-body connection so they can unlock peak performance. I do this in a couple of different ways: through 1 on 1 sessions over skype of facetime, and the other is through my online mental toughness training center called the Perform Happy community. It’s a group of parents, kids and hopefully a coaches section coming soon. Here you can get access to my complete library, all of my resources, guided trainings, etc.


Helping kids get through mental blocks

I have been getting tons of questions from coaches, and on behalf of coaches, about how to help kids through mental blocks, so my who le talk today will be about that. I’ve worked with hundreds of gymnasts who are stuck. A lot of the time it’s a menal block and fear. One of the questions I ask is “tell me about your favorite coach, what do you love about them?” Because coaches are these magical beings who show up every day and give their heart and soul and their time. They’re away from their kids and families to show up and spend the same number of hours as you guys, if not more, putting their heart into it. So when their athlete gets stuck they are just as frustrated.


I was also a coach, so I have a sweet spot in my heart for gymnastics coaches.

I coached for 15 years, up to level 9. My specialty was balance beam, so I saw a lot of blocks. In a 15-year career I probably had about a dozen kids that at one time or another were super blocked on their beam/tumbling skills, and I tried it all. I was the kid who was blocked on beam, personally, so then the irony of me being there going “just go for it!” And getting so frustrated when my kid wouldn’t go for it on the beam. I wish I could go back and tell myself, “that was me not too long ago. Calm down, she’s not doing this on purpose.”


How I recommend dealing with mental blocks

I’m going to give you guys an overview on what to do, and what not to do from a coaching perspective. If you’re a coach, hopefully you can get a takeaway that will help you be more effective with kids who are stuck like this. If you are not a coach, I’m guessing you have a coach. Feel free to forward this to them. With no pressure, give them this information that will hopefully help create a little more happiness in the gym instead of just frustration.


Coaches often coach in the way that worked for them

There are lots of different things that coaches do. They can give you the tough love treatment or be extremely caring. If you had a tough love coach you probably give tough love yourself, but if you were coached really sweetly and slowly, you probably coach that way. Often, it will work.  Sometimes kids need a kick. I believe a coach’s job is to push kids out of their comfort zone, not the parent’s job. Parent’s often do it, but I feel that it is the coach’s job. But it goes wrong when they give too big of a push.


Physical FEAR

Generally, the physical layer of the fear issue is all about progressions. When you learn a skill, you learn it in pieces. You build up confidence with all of those pieces and eventually you correctly do all of the things you’ve made mistake on at first. You take baby steps through, and once you build confidence it becomes automated in the brain and body. But then things happen such as injuries, stress, shifts in social life, social pressure, etc. These make it so that the mind-body connection is weaker. So what the coach typically sees is their athlete not going for a skill they competed last season.  They think they are being stubborn, lazy, afraid, etc. They then work through it.  But what happens is if your mind and body are not working well together, pressure gets added to the mix. Feeling pressured will tense you up and make you feel as if you can’t go forward.


Why do mental blocks happen?

A lot of coaches think their athlete is afraid and is not pushing through it or going for it, but it’s not that simple. In my experience, I would stand on the beam and tell myself “My coach is yelling at me. My teammates are frustrated. I need to go.” I would get ready and be prepared to go, not go, and when I finally tried to go, it would feel as though I was hitting a brick wall. That feeling is jarring and is not the same feeling as fear. Even my kids say that it isn’t fear.

What I learned while studying sport psychology: the brain has two reasons why it would cut the circuits to the body.

  1. The possibility of pain.  The feeling that if you continue down this trajectory, you could get hurt.
  2. Fear of the unknown.  When the brain doesn’t know what to expect, it stops the body from going.


The unknown and the number 7

If you get up to go, and your confidence level (on a scale of 1 to 10) is a 5, your brain will not let you go. Those odds are not good enough for your brain to keep moving forward. The magic number that I’ve found is 7 out of 10. At 5 out of 10, there’s a doomy feeling in the pit of your stomach.  The self-doubt is strong.  Strong enough to prevent the body from completing the skill.  Even if you REALLY want to go for it.  If your brain isn’t on board, your body isn’t going to be successful. At 7 out of 10 you’re nervous and you’ve got butterflies. You’re not quite sure, but you still think you can go. You’re nervous but optimistic and you think you can go for it.  And you will.


Coaches should help their athletes find 7

Here’s why: every time you have a success, your brain gains confidence. A lot of confidence is built on past experience. If you’re failing, falling or not going forward, your brain is registering the lack of confidence and success.  Repeated failure is actually the cause of the block, not fear. Every time you start into a skill and don’t go, you are teaching your body to balk.  Your brain will always stop the body from going when there isn’t enough confidence.  Keep in mind that mental confidence is different from physical ability.  Even though the body is capable of doing the skill and has done it countless times, if mental confidence is below a 7, the brain will stop the body from going.  If you’re at a 7, take a breath and go for it.  Start building confidence and your mental blocks will start to slowly go away. Of course, there is often more to a block than just the physical side.  For athletes who are dealing with a lot of pressure, social issues, etc. it can be good to talk to someone other than the coach or parent.  But, the coach can help a great deal by taking the pressure off a little, and allowing the athlete to re-build confidence through progressions.


The confidence ladder

With my confidence ladder, you plan each skill out in baby steps. You don’t start at the bottom of the ladder from where you “should be,” you start from where you are now. This can be tricky for coaches to be ok with starting from scratch, but you need to figure out where you are. From there, your 10 out of 10 would be what can you confidently do today. You then figure out your next step and what it requires. Does it require a mat, the tumble trak, a spot? Does it need something else? If so, athletes need to be able to communicate that. It will help them through mental blocks. Coaches should try to step back and realize that continued failure is what is blocking their athletes. If you can start building success to build confidence, everyone wins. You get the skill, you don’t have to kick the kid out of the gym, you can keep practicing. Our common goal is that the kid improves and gains the skill. If you have to let them go 1 panel at a time, do it. If you want them to build confidence, that’s where it comes from. Everyone has different paces. You don’t want to let them off the hook or let them stay too comfortable, but don’t push them to the point of freezing up.


Perform Happy Community

If you guys have any other questions about this specific topic of coaching kids through mental blocks, please reach out to me. I am working on a part of my Perform Happy community which will be just for coaches and will have lesson plans on exactly how to incorporate mental toughness training into your workouts. If you want to get on the VIP list to learn more, contact me and let me know.  It’s the type of thing I wish I had when I was a coach, because I didn’t know how to get my kids to go. I was trying a bunch of techniques, but I needed something to know that I was doing the right thing for my kids.

So as a coach, get them out of their comfort zone, but not too far. If they’re being stubborn trying to move forward, lovingly invite them to take a step back and rebuild confidence. Everyone will win from there. If you’re interested in more tips on mental toughness training, I have a whole online library at You can join us and meet me there for 1 on 1 help. I’ll be back again next Monday, so please contact me if you have an questions that you would like answered next week. I look forward to it!

Helping Coaches Get Their Athletes Through Mental Blocks

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.

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