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

Today’s Topic: Mental Blocks and Your Brain

Welcome to Q&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’m a High Performance Coach and my specialty is working with athletes age 8 to 18 on unlocking the mind-body connection so 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:


Mental Blocks in Athletesmental blocks

I do 90% of my work with clients on this one topic: mental blocks.

For those of you who are not familiar with what mental blocks are exactly, they happens to gymnasts, trampolinists, ice skaters, divers, baseball players, tennis players, etc.

Essentially it’s when you’ve done a skill over and over, and all of a sudden, something happens where you can’t do it anymore.

I’ve seen it happen with tennis players: you’re serving for the point, and it’s like your body won’t do what it knows how to do. 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, often a backward skill, or giants on the bars, something that they’ve done before. They start to go, and boom, it’s like they’re physically 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 many of my clients 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.

Like 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 the onset of fear is not random.  This phenomenon is within your control.  There is something that you can do, it’s predictable.  Think of it 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.  Here’s the common misconception: 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 to force it.

The Domino Effect

I’m going to tell you what you can do to overcome the fear and stop the domino effect.

Some people have 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 that one success 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 push that feeling 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 start over analyzing:

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

It’s almost like you forgot how to do a skill that used to be easy for you.  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.  Then coaches and teammates get frustrated.  They try to be helpful by telling you to “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 you feel like you should be able to go).  That’s the typical sequence of events:

  • Something feels off
  • You ignore the feeling and don’t ask for help
  • Skills start to act up
  • Your body “just won’t go”
  • Coaches try to motivate you to go for it
  • Everyone gets frustrated
  • You feel confused and hopeless

It seems like it just came out of nowhere, all of the sudden you can’t go.

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 saying, “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 doing this skill.”

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 senses one of these two things:

  1. 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.
  2. Too much of the unknown.  I know, this one is super vague.  Well, I boil it down to confidence.  If your confidence is too low, then your brain is going to prevent the body from going.  It’s basically like the brain is cutting circuit to the body.  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 on. 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 let you do your back walkover on the beam.  I’m not going to let you 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 trak 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 think it’s ridiculous that all of a sudden you need a spot on a skill you were doing perfectly last week.

“You don’t need to do that.  We don’t have time for that.  Just go do it.  You’re fine.”

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 have 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 about walking over to the coach — and this can be the hardest part 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, “Excuse me 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 work up to it?” Or, “Would it be okay if I went to the tumble trak and just tried a few so that I can get my brain feeling a little bit more confident?”

Communicate with Yourself, Your Coaches and Your Parents

Your coach might look at you like, “What are you talking about?”

In those moments when something feels funky, or you feel afraid and you hit a wall, if you freeze up or balk more than twice, that’s it.  There’s not going to be any forcing it.  Your brain has already taken over.

Here’s what you need to do:

You have to back it up and go to a different progression.  You have to communicate that, and coaches, you have to let the kid back it up.  Parents, you have to let the kid move at a snail’s pace for a little while in order to rebuild.

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.  Or more accurately, her body doesn’t need them, but her brain does.

For now, let her use them until she can get over the hump of the fear, at which point she can start phasing them out as her confidence builds.  Then she’s going to be back in good shape.

There are lots of kids who are super talented, or learn skills really fast.  Then something derails them (There are lots of different things that can rattle their confidence).  They need to go back to the beginning and start over a little bit, but they don’t know how.  Then, parents and coaches don’t know how to support their athletes through this process.

Okay, so let’s say I get my skills back.  I have these mental blocks, I work through them step-by-step, I get all my skills back, and then it comes back again.  That dreaded 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 is actually a warning sign for me.  It’s critical that you slow down and calm down when you’re dealing with the human brain.

She had had all this pressure coming from parents and coaches to speed up and get all those skills back NOW.  She made amazing progress, then she ended up falling.  She didn’t hurt herself, but she spooked herself.

Then mom throws up her hands and goes, “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.  This doesn’t feel right.”  But then she had another voice in her head saying, “I have to go or everyone will be mad at me.”

If it doesn’t feel right, that’s okay.  It has to be okay.  I know, of course, if you’re training at the elite level it seems impossible to stop and 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

If you’re struggling with mental blocks, here’s your job, just for a week, try it: I want you to start listening 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.  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 balk on a skill.  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 extra mat or spot.

Try that out.  That’s the foundation.  Once you’ve got that in place, the ability to actually sit and listen to your brain, it will start cooperating with you again.  Then you start to make some progress.

That’s when you can address the other things that lead to mental blocks, like the negative talk, or self-esteem, or any of those other things that might seem like they’re causing the problem.  They are definitely tied in.

A lot of the times when people are getting skills, 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 on a skill…

Just back it up.  Listen to your brain.  And start taking baby steps forward from there.

I was this kid (the fearful gymnast), 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 again, you want to get back up to speed NOW.  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 like a hopeless cycle, but it is not hopeless.  That’s just your brain sending you a strong message.  Your brain is saying, “We need to back it up and strengthen the foundation. 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.”  Once you, your brain, and your coaches get on the same page, it’s just a matter of time before you’re back up and running again.

Ready to get over your fear for good?  Check out the Overcoming Fear Course in the PerformHappy Community.

PerformHappy is a complete online mental toughness training program.  It’s user friendly, fun, and super effective at helping kids regain their confidence and fall back in love with their sport.

See you again soon!



Mental Blocks and Your Brain | Complete Performance Coaching

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