Getting Your Athlete to Believe in Themselves | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Getting Your Athlete to Believe in Themselves


About me

Hi everybody. I’m Rebecca Smith, a high performance coach and founder of Complete Performance Coaching. I am also known as Coach Rebecca. I’m here for a Q&A with Coach Rebecca, our weekly get together live on Facebook where I answer questions from members of the Perform Happy Community so that I can help all of you athletes, coaches, and parents get the most out of the sport experience.

Just a quick, but a little bit of background on me. I was an athlete, I was a coach, and now I help people with the mental side of sport. This is done in two different ways:

  1. I do one-on-one Skype coaching with athletes age 8 to 18.
  2. Also, I have a blooming and blossoming on-line community of athletes, parents, and coaches who want to have access to my techniques without the cost of one-on-one work, and it’s for continuing clients after, so they can continue doing the good work that we’ve done together.


Here’s our question today from a member of the community. She says,

Getting Your Athlete to Believe in Themselves

Q: My daughter, age 10, level 7 gymnast, is dealing
with a long-term block, mental block, on a round-off back handspring, back tuck, but she will do a round-off back tuck. She’s also blocked on going backwards on the beam. She says negative things all the time like ‘I’m not even a level 4.’ I’ve tried the positive thoughts and neutral thoughts, but she’s already convinced nothing will work. How can I help her believe in herself without pushing and making it more stressful? She says she hates it when I tell her I believe in her or that I’m proud of her.



Following this question a bunch of parents in the community chimed in with, “Me too! Oh my gosh, my kid, like she’s so negative.” It makes perfect sense, because the brain, when it’s dealing with fear, wants to do anything possible to get you to avoid that skill, anything. Your brain is very crafty. Thank goodness, it’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re all still alive and safe.

That’s the first thing, is that her brain is really anti. Her brain is wanting to avoid the skill at all costs, will throw negativity out there, will throw pain out there, will do anything it can to get the body to just not want to go for it. That’s really what we’re up against.


The Belief System

What I want to talk about is the belief system, because beliefs have everything to do with performance, everything. There was a study that was done on somebody who went to the Olympics and had success. She was anonymous, of course. They did this study on her, and what it showed was that the number one thing that relates to Olympic success is feeling in control.

That’s also something that leads to feeling okay, emotionally safe, is feeling like you’re in control. When you’re dealing with fear, you don’t feel in control, so you have to gain control anywhere that you can get it. A lot of that, for us who have been afraid, it comes down to being right. If I can just be right, then I have control over something, and I’m not going to feel completely out of control, hopeless, and lost.

Unfortunately, the thing that we like to latch onto and be right about is not always productive. In this situation where she says something like “Nothing’s going to work. I have already tried that. I’m hopeless. I can’t do it,” any of those things that probably any of us watching or listening have heard, have said, becomes true. When you put it out there, it becomes true, because then your brain does its job and is like a heat-seeking missile toward being right.


Expectation Tends to Fuel Beliefs

I’m going to give you guys a little example of this. My husband and I decided to paint our house. He had redone a bunch of stuff on the back of the house, and it needed to be done. I was like, “You know, I don’t like the color. Let’s just have somebody repaint the house.” Then we got two bids. One was astronomically high, and one was super low. I was like, “Hey, let’s get the good deal.” He was like, “You know that’s going to be a crappy paint job,” excuse my phrasing.

I was like, “Whatever. It’s fine. We’ll get it done. Then if we don’t like it, we can change it in a few years. I like the sound of that. This guy’s nice. Let’s do it.” He comes and does it. I look at it and I’m like, “Wow! It looks so much better. I really like the new color.”

My husband meanwhile was like, “(gasp) I knew this would happen. This is awful. He did such a terrible job. There’s cracks. There’s peeling paint. Look at this detail. Look at how that wasn’t right, and this was bad, and that was bad. He has to come back and fix it.”

He comes back and he spends three hours fixing it. Then my husband’s like, “No, he didn’t barely scratch the surface of what was wrong.” Meanwhile I’m like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. It looks good to me. Let’s move on with our lives.”


The Heat Seeking Missile

It’s the same house, but there are two difference expectations. I was like, “Let’s get a good deal. Hey, it looks nice. It looks better than before.” He was like, “That sounds too good to be true; it’s going to be bad.” He believed that. He believed this is going to be bad. They’re going to do a bad job. ” So he, like his little heat-seeking missile, was seeking out all the flaws, because he needed to be right. This is not a criticism against my husband by any means, who I adore, it’s just that’s how our minds work.

I was the one who was like, “Let’s pick this guy,” so then I’m going, “Let’s find all the reasons why this was a good idea,” and he was saying, “That’s going to be a bad idea,” so he’s finding all the reasons why that’s going to be a bad idea. That’s how humans’ minds work.

If your daughter is thinking, “I can’t do it. It’s impossible. I will never get past this level. I stink. Nothing’s going to work,” she’s going to seek out all of the information that will prove that to be true. Even if I tell my husband, “I think it looks fine,” he still has that attitude, and it’s not for me to say, “You need to feel differently about this.”

Instead, I can just enjoy it and hoping that he moves on, which he already has, thank goodness. Every time he pulls up he’s like, “Yeah, it doesn’t look so bad. Okay.” We’ve got that cleared. Whatever she believes to be true, she’s going to seek out information that proves it to be true. What can you do?


Believing in Effort Versus Talent

I’m going to give you a little talk about beliefs, and then I’ll give you some suggestions at the end for coaches, and for parents, and for athletes.

Based on some research done by Lauren Gardner in May 2017, so just earlier this year, she really zeros in on these two types of beliefs in one’s self. You believe predominantly that with effort, things will change, or that things are fixed. This is basically effort versus talent.

Some people believe you set your mind to it, you put in a big effort, you can do anything. This is the standard mom line, right? “If you set your mind to it, you can do anything.” Some people believe that way. While other people believe you either have it, or you don’t. You’re either talented, or you’re not. You’re either made for it, or you’re not. Depending on which school of thought you belong to, that will greatly affect your ability to get over fear and your ability to be successful in your sport, and your ability to perform.


Your Beliefs Drive Your Ability to Get Over Fear

If you believe that you have everything you’re going to have, and it doesn’t matter how hard you work, you’re either talented or you’re not, that’s going to lead to demoralization. That’s going to lead to burnout, that’s going to lead to you giving up on yourself versus if you believe no matter what, if you put in the effort, you can have what you want. “If I work hard enough, I can and will get through this fear.”

If you believe that in your bones, then science shows it will happen, and science shows that if you believe it’s impossible, you will be right. That’s the first thing, is that mom, maybe you’re not the person to tell it to her. Like, have her watch my videos. Have her check in with what I’m saying, and maybe that can help. Just coming from somebody else, because, of course, you’re supposed to say, “Oh, honey, you’re going to get through it,” and she’s like, “Mom, you always are positive, and that’s not working.”


Starting Off Simple

Back to the research done by Gardner in 2017. The important goals that you need to set to get out of that “it’s either talent or effort,” to get out of the “I either have it or don’t mindset,” are you have to have self-referenced improvement goals. This  means you’re always going for a personal best. When you’re in this really demoralized place, start simple. That’s just “What is the next thing I’ll do tomorrow that will get me moving forward?”

Of course, she’s going to feel like there’s nothing I can do, and it’s way too big and too hard, but there’s got to be something, and she’s got to pick it. She has to sign on for it and go, “Okay. I know this is going to be hard, but I want it.”

I talked in the community just the other day around this topic about motivation. She’s got to know why she wants it. Once she knows, “I want this because I need it to go to college,” or “because I need it to feel like I’m satisfied with my efforts here.” Or she’ll just go, “I don’t need it. I’m going to work around it. I love gymnastics. It’s fine,” which honestly is an okay solution, because if they don’t want it bad enough, the road of pushing through fear can be much too difficult.

I’m not saying it’s too difficult. I’m just saying if you’re not motivated, it’s a lot harder to walk than if you are.

If she’s motivated, then the next thing to do is just put a goal on the table. Let’s say she can do a round-off back tuck, she can do maybe a round-off back handspring back tuck with a spot into the pit, or something like that. Figure out what she can do. What can you do?


Praise Both Progress and Effort, Not Just Success

Then you build confidence on that and then take one baby step tomorrow, or one baby step next week. The key here is to praise that progress. I know I say this all of the time, but praise effort, praise progress. A lot of the times, the mistakes that parents make is going so crazy when they do something well, when they “succeed”, when they complete the skill. The parents go nuts, and they’re so happy. “Oh my gosh, you did it!” But there’s not anything happening from starting to learn the skill to successfully getting it, and that creates this belief that it’s only valuable when the whole skill is fully completed.

Coaches do this, too. I was guilty of this when I was a coach. I was like, “Keep working on it. Keep working on it. Keep working on it. You did it!” Instead, it should be, “You’re working on it! Good! Keep it up! Good job! That’s awesome!” They might look at you like you’re nuts. That’s not awesome. That was just a drill. Keep reinforcing that you see the effort, that you see the possibility. Maybe it will rub off.

If they still don’t see the possibility, then that’s a whole other issue, because there’s got to be like a little teeny nugget of open-mindedness to the idea that this could work.


Share Your Success and Inspire Others

Here’s what I want to do. One of the main things that can shift you from impossibility thinking to possibility is to see examples of other people just like you overcoming a difficulty. You guys out there, if you’re listening on the podcast or if you’re watching on the live video, I want you guys to send me your successes. Send me your successes. Whether or not we’ve worked together one-on-one, if you have an experience where you were afraid, then you worked through a mental block and you were able to overcome, I really want you to share those with me so that I can share them with my platform, because that’s what we need.

I have been stuck in fear and feeling hopeless and feeling like there is no way, I will never get over this, I’m broken, I’m screwed up, and it is the deepest darkest feeling, especially when people just like me do not have trouble with it, and here I am alone. Then when I open up my mouth about it and go like, “This stinks that I’m so scared of this,” then people are like, “Oh, I’ve been there, and here’s what I did.”

I want you guys to post on the CPC page here on the Facebook page, and I want you to post videos. I get text videos actually all the time from past clients of their kids doing a back full when they came to me for a back handspring.


The Success of Others Can Drive Your Success

I have all kinds of beautiful things in my phone that I don’t have permission to share, so I don’t, but you guys, I want you to post videos, I want you to post stories, I want you to post pictures so that other people can see that it is absolutely possible, because that’s something that can push you over the edge. If you have a little bit of an open mind, and then you see a story of a kid who was stuck on a back handspring for two years, and now she’s doing fulls, it can give you that little bit of “Okay, I’ll set a little goal for next week, and I’ll move forward with it.”

I want you guys to tell me, what are you working on? What is your struggle? Of course, I get back to the members in the private community, but even on the main page, you guys let me know what’s going on. Give me your successes, and I’m really going to solicit these from my members too in the members-only area so that we can have kind of a stockpile of positive vibes, so these kids are going to know you’re not alone, and it’s possible, but you have to believe that it’s about effort and not talent.


Effort Over Talent

I outlaw that word talent in my house. When we talk to our toddler, we’re always like, “Good work, kiddo” instead of like, “You’re so smart.” It’s, “You’re working hard,” because if she believes that she’s only as smart as she is, she’s not going to want to work hard to get smarter, to learn the things she needs to learn.

I know that’s kind of all over the place, but make sure that you are continually praising effort, even if she rolls her eyes at you, even if she feels hopeless, and then talk to her about successes. Talk to her about things that have gone right. I’ve got so many experiences of kids coming to me feeling hopeless, and then getting their hope back, but it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s the big thing. Maybe once a year I get a kid who gets all of her skills back in a month, who’s majorly affected by fear, but typically it’s more like a month here, a month there, and people get them back.

Then I start getting this flow of videos in, and it’s just something that there’s got to be some faith behind, like this is going to work out.


Coaches, Focus on the Effort Rather Than Talent

This is some things that coaches can do to promote the type of belief that will help kids move forward. Focus on effort and persistence. Provide challenge, so that’s moderate challenge, not too big of a challenge so they feel blocked. Explore the value of setbacks. I talk about those all the time in my trainings, that failures are not failures, they’re stepping stones to success. That every time you make a mistake, you learn from that and you move forward.

Coaches can also provide encouragement that you’re encouraging them to improve instead of beating them down for not improving. People, the best-meaning coaches don’t always know that.

Here’s a comment that I’ll take a look at. Sandra is saying, “My daughter had a terrible fear of vaulting. She would hit the tables for weeks, she went through three private coaches, she broke through the fear. That level 4 vault state champion.” Awesome! A success! That’s it!

Sometimes you keep hitting walls, but you keep moving forward. You keep moving forward. You take privates, and then you break through and you win the state! That’s not everybody’s story, but I love it. What else do you have? Give us your successes so we can let this mom’s daughter know it can happen for you, too, but you have to keep walking into it.


The Fire of Fear

I talk about the fire of fear. You’ve got to walk into the fire. You can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you can’t go around it, you’ve got to walk into it. Little by little in little digestible bits.

What parents can do, I mentioned it a little bit, but it’s all about how you respond to their achievements versus their effort. In the post game debrief, you want to make sure that you’re recognizing improvement. Even if it’s the littlest bit, and even if they roll their eyes at you the whole entire time, you’re like, “Hey, you’re moving forward. You made five of those today, and you only made two yesterday. Yeah, you’re on the low beam. Good job.”

Then also being aware of your own beliefs. This is the real kicker for parents. If you are only invested in her being able to do that skill, she’s going to feel like she’s only good if she does that still versus all the other things that you guys can be grateful for.


What are you Grateful For?

My challenge for you is actually to talk gratitude. What are you grateful for? Especially when she’s in those funky places, which she may not want to participate, and do not push, but if you guys can make a game out of it like, “Let’s say five things we’re grateful for. I’ll go first.” Then mom goes, then the kid goes. Maybe you’ve got a bunch of kids in the car, and everybody can go around, something you’re grateful for. That can help break up the negative vibes. That’s another thing that’s been scientifically proven to change your brain and make you perform better.

Practice gratitude. Look on the bright side. One thing I have some of my people do who are really negative but at least open, is to write down five good things after each practice. If you can write down five good things, and you have to do it every single day, you’ll start finding the positives, instead of my husband, like if I said, “Honey, I want you to find five good things about our house paint every day,” he would start to fall in love with our house. That’s the way that would go.


Wrap Up

Those are a lot of tips. Just make sure that you believe in her, that you believe in the process, because that’s one thing that I get a lot is, somebody will have this big breakthrough, and I reach out to mom and I’m like, “Hey, can I get a testimonial?” They’re like, “Let’s see if it sticks. I don’t think it’s going to stick.” I’m like, “You guys, come on.” The mom’s got to model that, like, “Yes. Let’s keep this momentum going,” instead of like, “I don’t know. This probably isn’t going to last.”

I hear that enough that I’m like, “Okay, moms, and dads, of course, have a little more faith in your kids and in the process.” Okay guys, I’m going to sign off, but reach out to me here at if you have any questions, and I’ll see you back next week.

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