Overcoming Fear and Mental Blocks as an Athlete
Today, I’ve got a theme of overcoming fear and mental blocks as an athlete, which is basically always a theme around Complete Performance Coaching, because that is my own personal demon. It’s where most of my clients find themselves stuck… In this place where your mind won’t let your body do what your body is capable of doing.
Sometimes you’re doing a skill… No problem… Then BOOM.
You hit a wall. Something happens and you can’t do it anymore.
Or maybe you’ve been nervous from the beginning and now, sometimes, you can do it. Sometimes, you can’t.
Sometimes it’s a confident day, sometimes it’s not.
I’m going to break down why this happens and how to get through it.
We’ve got a couple of questions that are kind of similar, kind of different, but it all links in on the mind-body connection, fear and mental blocks, which is what I specialize in.
I am a high performance coach. I help athletes, age 8 to 18, strengthen the mind-body connection, so that they can perform at their very best when it matters most, and I do this in a couple of ways:
- One-on-one coaching
- The online PerformHappy community, where people get access to courses on things like overcoming fear, building confidence, finding flow. You get unlimited Q&A with me and a community of other people going through what you’re going through.
Q: When you were a gymnast, did you ever do a skill awesomely, then the next day you can’t do it, then you can, then you can’t again, etc.? It’s really annoying with my flyaway. I competed them all last year, got first place in about three to five competitions, but all of a sudden I can’t do it without my coach standing by my side. Can you help with this? It is super silly and annoying to everyone.
The answer is yes. This was my back walkover on the beam and my roundoff back handspring back tuck. There were days when it was fine. It was great. I was confident. No problem, and there were days when it just wasn’t happening. I couldn’t get myself to do more than a roundoff sometimes.
We call it fear, but it’s not really fear. It’s that the body is capable, but the mind stops you from going.
Fear is like an onion
Fear has multiple layers and you can’t just address one. This is why a lot of the time, people go, “I got it back, then I lost it. I got it back, then I lost it,” because maybe they’re addressing the physical part, but they’re not addressing the mental part or the emotional part or the spiritual part of fear and mental blocks.
There are all these different parts to the complete athlete and if you’re missing one, then you have this back-and-forth thing going on.
I’m also going to talk about the solution to fear and mental blocks.
I’ll give you a general overview of how I work with kids to get them out of that back-and-forth stuck place.
The layers of fear and mental blocks
First, we’ll talk about the layers of fear. We can break it down, but generally, there are three:
Layer #1 of Fear: Physical – Rebuilding Motor Skills
When you learn any skill, you have to learn it in chunks. You build your strength, your flexibility, connect pieces together, learn it through drills, and then you get it.
When you first get it, you really have to think about it like, “Okay, I have to do this with my arms and this with my legs,” and you really have to focus in. You’re doing it, but it takes a lot of thought and a lot of effort.
With enough repetitions, you get to the point where you don’t have to think that much and you just do it. Then you’ve clicked into this automation stage.
That’s when everything’s great. It’s like, “Think kip. Do kip.” You don’t have to think about it, you just get up and go.
That’s where we all want to be with our skills, right, because then, you just go out, you compete, your skills happen, and it’s awesome.
Now the problem is that fear and mental blocks hit in skills you’ve already got automated. All of a sudden, your brain’s like, “Wait. What do I do?” “I don’t remember. I haven’t had to think about this skill in so long.” Then it becomes confusing.
It becomes stressful and you almost have to re-learn it in order to identify what’s important and what’s missing. That’s the physical layer to fear and mental blocks. If something gets disrupted, you have to relearn it physically, re-automate it, even though you “should” be able to do it.
Layer #2 of Fear: Mental – What Are You Thinking?
Next, we’ve got the mental part – the thinking, your focus, and the images in your mind.
For better or for worse, you automate certain thoughts, certain focuses, certain things that you’re paying attention to.
Some of the automatic strategies you’re using work and some of the strategies don’t work.
For example, I just worked with a figure skater who was thinking automatically in one part of her program, “I’m so tired. I’m so tired. I’m so tired,” and then that’s the part that she’d get really stressed out about. I suggested she come up with a new thing to think there instead of “I’m so tired.” Once she re-programmed her thinking in that part of her program, her performance anxiety drastically decreased.
For you, if you are feeling stuck on a certain skill, you might check in with “What am I automatically thinking there?” “Oh gosh, it’s going to be harder.” “I hope I don’t fall” or “I’m not sure about this.” You might be thinking something not helpful without realizing it which is leading to your fear and mental blocks.
First, you have to be aware of what goes on in your mind, and if it’s working or not. Then you need a strategy in place to get back to your ideal performance mindset.
Layer #3 of Fear: Social-Emotional
The last layer of fear and mental blocks is social and emotional. Now this one’s huge. This goes with a couple of other questions. I’ll read those now, actually, because it relates.
Q: This question may be related to your post about athletes feeling down on themselves. My daughter has recently gone through a pretty big growth spurt. Unfortunately, toward the end of her level 7 season, her floor and vault skills have regressed. She used to place in the top five on vault and the all around. At state, she missed medaling and the all around by a quarter of a tenth. Needless to say, it has been frustrating for everyone, most of all, her. Some of her friends have even commented to her about why her switch leaps are so bad, why she can’t vault. Her coaches are confused about why these regressions are happening. They’re not mean or condescending, but how can we help and how can she help herself through this awkward time?
Obviously, there’s some physical stuff there. The growth spurt, that goes into the physical layer. If it doesn’t feel the same, because your body has different center of gravity and different growth, you have to relearn the skill for your new body even though you “should” be able to do the skill.
There’s also the social part. She’s got coaches that don’t understand and teammates that are like, “Why are those so bad? Oh my gosh,” and they think that they’re being funny or whatever. They just don’t think and it can really get to the heart. If you allow things like that, like the fear of “What will people think” or comments to get to you, that can really get in the way of that mind-body connection too.
Q: I have districts this weekend, but I have a block on my roundoff back handspring back tuck. I need to get it by districts. What should I do to build up my confidence?
This falls into both the mental and the physical categories of fear. Pressure is one of the main causes of fear and mental blocks. Thoughts like: “I have to get it by this weekend… I have to go for it now” are probably the biggest enemy of confidence because if you are so stressed about getting something done in a certain amount of time, I’ve found that you actually lower your chances of getting through the mental block.
Example – Fear of Elevators
Here’s a quick example that I like to give about how overcoming fear and mental blocks works:
If the mental block you’re dealing with is fear, consider someone who is afraid of elevators. There are people who have phobias of elevators, and the way that somebody overcomes the fear of an elevator is not by being thrown into the elevator and then sent to the basement. It’s by easing in, easing in, over time, little by little.
You start by watching the elevator doors open and close. The next day, you put your big toe in. The day after that you put your whole foot in for a second, then pull it out. And the next day after that you put half your body in, etc. Eventually you get to the point where you can step in, close the doors, take a breath, then go up a floor. And with time and good support, a person can ride an elevator whenever necessary.
If you were on day 3 of this process, just putting your foot in for a second, and someone pushed you in and sent you to the basement, would you feel better or worse about elevators?
Answer: you would now fear elevators, AND the person who pushed you in. And you would be less likely to want to continue the process.
This process is called systematic desensitization. You take the thing that you’re afraid of, slowly fade it in, and then you get a little more comfortable. Then you slowly do a little more and you get a little comfortable.
If your fear is of a back walkover on the beam, and you’re slowly working your way up to a stacked up low beam, then a medium beam with lots of mats, and your coach says, “ok, now just get up and go on the high beam!” It has the same effect. If you’re not ready, you haven’t built up confidence at the other levels, you risk shocking your system, failing, and re-starting the process.
The pressure of “I gotta get it done by tomorrow,” really just doubles the fear and prevents you from getting done what you needed to get done. It’s temporary, but in these situations, you have to take the pressure off. Let it run its course.
Q: As a coach, how do I deal with parents who put pressure on my athletes by being over-involved and always watching practice?
A coach was asking about parents causing pressure, the onlooker, so that’s that social layer. This is my long way of explaining that there are four different layers. If you don’t address them all, it’s not going to be a lasting change, so physical, mental, social-emotional (that’s friends, coaches, and family), and spiritual.
Here are the solutions. I’ve got six steps here that will get you over a mental block.
The 6 steps for overcoming fear and mental blocks
1. Understand the FEAR
That’s the first thing: you have to understand. You have to understand what fear is, why it comes up, more about the mind-body connection, and how being a perfectionist really contributes to getting stuck like this.
2. Learn How to Bounce Back when FEAR Hits
The second step is learning how to bounce back when it hits (I also go over this in the free training, or you can download my bounce-back routine template at the bottom of this article).
If you show up one day and fear is there and you can’t go, what do you do next? You’re not going, “I hope I don’t get afraid. I hope I don’t get afraid,” because then you’re tense and you’re way more likely to get afraid.
Instead, you want to be able to say, “Okay, if I show up and today is not a good day and I’m a little bit scared here or this isn’t going well, then this is what I do next…” and then you have a plan. Then typically, you don’t get as scared, because you’re not having fear of fear running the show.
3. Stop Failing and Start Succeeding
Step three is to stop failing and start succeeding. I know. Wouldn’t it be great if that was just the answer? “Don’t fail anymore. Start succeeding.”
It’s like you have this bank, this confidence bank, that you’re filling up.
Every time you fail, every time you try that flyaway and it doesn’t work, you’re taking money out of the bank. You’re spending money and confidence is going down. Every time you do a drill or you get a spot or you do some progression in the direction of that skill, you’re putting money in the bank. You’re succeeding.
If you’re trying a skill on the floor and you’re not doing the whole skill, but you’re doing part of it intentionally and you’re succeeding, you’re putting money in the bank,.
Every time you do something that you set out to do, you’re getting money in the bank.
Every time that you fail, you’re taking money out, so you have to cut off the failing. Try something else. This can be really hard for perfectionists and for people who are like, “I should have this skill. I should have done this already. I have to just keep trying,” and then you keep failing and failing. Your bank is on empty and your mood goes down and your confidence is gone.
Keep the confidence you have in your bank: do some drills, get a spot, get a mat. Come back tomorrow. Build up confidence elsewhere, and then you can come back fresh and try it again.
The success you get from slow progressions builds confidence and is more lasting.
4. Build Confidence
There are a lot of different ways to build confidence. I did a whole talk on that a couple of weeks ago. This is one main things I teach in my PerformHappy community course on fear. We also do a lot of imagery. We take care of the thinking. A lot of it is noticing how you think, what’s working, what’s not working, and having a plan to continually everyday build more confidence and success.
Number five, learn how other people play a part. You have to be able to communicate with your coaches, and learn how to let things go that are not helping you.
Are your parents causing you stress? We can figure that out. How can you communicate with your teammates? Are you the one who’s actually bringing you down? Consider how you talk to yourself. Figuring out how you and other people play a part in the fear is important.
6. Get your Heart in the Game
Finally, the number six from the course that I have in the PerformHappy community is getting your heart in the game. Part of that is shifting your focus from what’s not going well to what is. Getting back in touch with why you love it and why you do it. Once your heart clicks in and you get the desire factor going again, that’s when you can overcome a lot of these fears and mental block.
That’s my process.
I have a whole course on Overcoming FEAR in the PerformHappy community, and I also work with kids one-on-one all the time through this exact process. If you have questions, please feel free to reach out.