How to Handle Athlete Fear in Different Sports | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: How to Handle Athlete Fear in Different Sports


About Me

Hi everyone.  Welcome to Q&A with Coach Rebecca.  I am Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching.  We are a team of highly skilled sports psychology coaching experts who specialize and work one-on-one with athletes, mainly age 8 to 18, on all kinds of sports.

We can help you perform better, especially if the reason you’re not performing well is between your ears.  Your coach coaches from your neck down and your neck up.  If you ask me, that’s the most important piece of the puzzle.  A lot of people spend their whole lives improving their physical skill that they forget the main important part is getting your brain to cooperate with you.


That’s what we do through one-on-one coaching over Skype or FaceTime.  We also have a fabulous community called the PerformHappy community.  We are full of self-service mental toughness training options, as well as live coaching.  It’s the most accessible way to get a peak performance expert in your back pocket.  If you’re interested in checking that out, you can go to

Today I am taking three questions.  They are all about fear and anxiety because they are our biggest culprits.

Confidence and Fear

Confidence and fear are pretty much opposites, and confidence is the most important thing you need in order to perform at your best.  If fear is up to your eyeballs, your confidence can’t be high.  As you get your confidence up, your fear goes down.  My job, my primary purpose on this planet, is to help people increase confidence through decreasing fear.

These three questions are all about fear and anxiety, and they’re all different sports.  You can see how fear affects sports differently.  Our first question comes from Sandy she says,

Q: My daughter’s a level 7, moving to level 8 gymnast.  She peeled off the bars while doing a giant, and now is afraid of the bars.  What suggestions do you have?



Those of you non-gymnasts can assume she flung off the bars, and now she’s afraid of the bars.  Makes sense, right?  If I was your brain, and you just flung off the bars, I would not want you doing that anymore.  This is what creates what we a call mental block.  Your brain makes a decision that your body is not so happy about.

Your brain says, “Okay, we’re not doing that anymore, thanks anyway.  Let’s find something else to do with our free time other than bars.”  Your brain will do everything in its power to try to get you to not do the bars, to avoid them and do other events, basically anything it can do to get you to steer clear of that thing that it now thinks is dangerous.

Overcoming Fear

Even if you didn’t get hurt, it spooked you, and now you don’t want to do it.  Luckily this is a member of the community, so she has access to the overcoming fear course. It’s six modules, best to do them once a week, and then you can spend the week working through the action steps.  If you haven’t already, dig into that course now.

It will get you to the point where you will know exactly how to communicate with your brain.  You’ll know exactly what your next step is.  Fear is something that you will always be up against as you keep up-leveling your skill, especially in gymnastics and figure skating and diving, what I call “scary sports”.

Your brain is going to keep asking, “Whoa, you want to do what?”  You have to go through the same process that gets you back to what seemed like easier skills that are only going to become harder and harder as you go through the levels.  The key point I want you to know is to start where you are.

What Can Your Athlete Do?

If where you are is “I can barely swing on the bar”, you’re basically asking your brain, “Okay brain, if you can’t do that right now, what can you do?  Can you swing on the bar?  Can you do it with a spot?  Can you do it into the foam pit?  Can you do whatever?  What will you let me do today?”

Then you start with that, and you start making progress.  You do as much of that as you possibly can to start feeling successful.  That allows your brain to think it’s safe, to realize you’ve done this 100 times, and maybe it’s time to try a slightly more difficult progression that you’ll slowly tiptoe into.

Listen to Your Brain

You have to listen to your brain.  Instead of fighting against it, ask your brain what you should do next.  Try it, give it a minute, and if it seems too scary, back it up a step and try something a little easier.  Start with that, build your foundation, and then give it time.

Stay positive.  Every single week you want to be taking a little step forward.  If you’re in competition season, or your coach is yelling, it’s harder to feel like you can take those baby steps.  That’s why there’s a whole module on communicating with your coaches and communicating with your brain.  You will know exactly how to talk to them and how to get everybody on your team so you can work in favor of your brain.

Get Your Brain on Your Side

You have to get your brain on your side, otherwise, you’re going to keep hitting a wall.  This probably does not seem like a good example to you guys, but I had a little moment with my kid, my little daughter.  She’s going to be three.  Her name is Ruby, she is in gymnastics, so she and I go to our mom and my class twice a week. I’m like don’t be that mom, don’t be that mom who’s like point your toes, or former gymnast mom.

I love taking her to gymnastics class, and so she’s a funny kid though, she does not like being told what to do, sounds just like me, and she gets scared of certain things.  She does not want the teacher to help her, she wants me to help her.  I’m like come on kid, just do the class, do what the other kids are doing, you’re making me look bad.

I fall into that typical “just do it” mentality.  I want you to do the thing, not be scared, and just go.  Then the owner of the gym who teaches the class sends me his gymnasts to work with, he’ll say, “Oh, why don’t you do what you tell your kids to do – baby steps.”  I’m like, “Oh yeah, okay.”  This time around just go and touch the mat that’s next to the coach and then go and do the next one.

Taking Baby Steps

Come around and maybe you’ll hold onto the bar.  Then you can leave.  You don’t have to do it.  I know she’s the best kid in this class.  I know she can do this, but for her she needs to just go bit-by-bit when the coach is around, because for whatever reason that makes her nervous, which is ok.  He’s 6’3 and she’s this tiny little thing.  I can see how that could make somebody nervous.

The other day we were doing the parachute.  They had a challenge where all the little’s were supposed to run all the way around this massive parachute, around all the parents, and come back and sit with their grown-up.  She looked at me and like there was no way she was running around this big thing without me.

Baby steps.  I said, “Okay, why don’t you run over to yellow, and come back.”  She ran over to yellow and came back.  Then I said, “How about blue?”  She went past the yellow, over to the blue, and came back to me.  High five.

You know what?  That was her success for the day.  Because I teach this stuff, I was able to recognize her success instead of thinking my kid sucks and she’s a wimp for not running around the parachute.

Acknowledge Success

She just gets nervous around big people because she’s a little person, and that is totally okay.  Next week, maybe we’ll get to the green or the red, maybe she’ll get halfway, and maybe she’ll get all the way around.  If I force it, she’s not going to want to do it.  Her brain is going to say, “This is not safe, I don’t like it, I don’t want to go.”  If I say, “Just go to the blue,” she goes, she feels successful, and I give her a high five.

That’s the concept.  Let’s change our expectations as parents and coaches, and help them out of their comfort zone, little by little.  One day, she’ll be the one saying, “Mommy I want to swing on the rope today.”  Girl, get it!  It took us a couple of weeks, but today she did it.  So that’s my little example where I realized this totally works!

Don’t be a Perfectionist with Your Athlete

I need to not be a perfectionist.  I need to let go of my expectations for my kid.  I also need to forget about her making me look bad, and just remember she’s not even three, and I’m so proud of her for just showing up.

That’s what I did.  We left and I was told her, “You worked so hard.  That was awesome.  You made progress and you tried things that were scary for you, and I’m so proud of you.”  That has to be the focus – it’s about our effort.

Moving along to Jen’s question.  This is a cheer mom who asked, “It’s the time of year for cheer tryouts.  Do you have any suggestions on how to handle tryouts, especially if there is a mental block involved?  How do we as parents navigate through this?”

That whole little vignette about my kid totally applies here.  You have to check your expectations.  If your feeling like you really want your kid to make it and you don’t want her to be upset, but you also want to look good because you’ve been working so hard and you just want her to be happy… well, those are expectations.  Expectations set you up to be upset.

Have No Expectations

I know that’s a really bold statement.  We go through our whole lives with expectations.  Try to say, “You know what?  I’m expecting nothing.  I don’t how it’s going to go, but whatever happens happens.”  Meanwhile, you’ve got a couple of weeks, a month, or maybe less to just focus on what’s within your control.

You can get her there on time.  You can feed her food that makes her body feel good and operate well.  You can help her get some sleep, get her private lessons, even take her tumbling classes, which I know this mom is doing.  She’s doing everything within her power to prepare her daughter for the best tryout experience she can have.

When we have a mental block, you can’t just rush your kid around that parachute.  I can’t just say, “Go, it’s time, tryouts time, go, run around the parachute.” She’ll want to run the other way!  Her brain is going to be where it is.  She’s been putting in the work, we’ve been working on this.  Mom’s been doing a really great job of being supportive, and giving her everything she needs without forcing her to make any progress that her brain isn’t ready to make.

How to Handle Athlete Fear in Different SportsPraise Effort

It’s almost time to just stay focused on what you can control.  Praise her effort, be so proud of her, and let it go.  I tell some of my kids to make a worry box if they’re really worried about something.  If something is coming up and they are worried or stressed about performance, I’ll say, “Okay, write it all down, what are you worried about?”

Worry Box

Mom, you can do this too.  Write down like “I’m worried she’ll be upset.  I’m worried she’ll feel bad.  I’m worried she won’t make the team.”  Write it all out, fold it up, put it in your worry box, shut it and let it go.

There’s really nothing you can do beyond what you’re already doing.  You can have the confidence that you are doing everything you need to do to set her up for success, and from there you have to let go.

My final note on this question is that I’m the kind of person who likes to think everything happens for a reason.  I don’t know if everything does happen for a reason, because I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t see the whole universe.  I do know that it makes me feel better and it helps me sleep well at night to think everything happens for a reason.

My “Failures”

I look back on my biggest struggles when I was a young gymnast, and I was overcome by fear and anxiety.  I’ve had a lot of what I felt were these awful, horrible crash and burns that led to the end of my gymnastics career.  There were a lot of things that went wrong in my life.  Failing out of school, divorce, failures.

I look back on them and I am thankful.  Thankful that it didn’t pan out, thankful that guy didn’t work out, and thank goodness, because the life I have today is immeasurably more wonderful than anything I could’ve imagined.  I can look back and say, “Oh yeah, okay.  Whatever is running this universe is taking care of me just fine.  Every lesson I’ve needed to learn I’ve learned, and it’s brought me to this really enjoyable life.”

Michael Jordan’s Story

I have to try to think about that for my daughter.  Everything in her life is happening for whatever reason, and so far for my life, it’s gone well, so why wouldn’t it go okay for her too?  Even if she has to endure some disappointment.  You guys may have heard of Michael Jordan.  A lot of people know he was cut from his high school varsity basketball team.  Well, he wasn’t cut, he was just put on JV.

He was a sophomore.  They didn’t allow sophomores on varsity at the time, or that was what the coach said, so they didn’t let him on varsity.  They did let another sophomore who was 6’7 on the team, and Michael Jordan was only 5’10.  He was livid.  He knew he belonged on the team.  He should have been on that team and they didn’t let him.  They didn’t believe in him.  So what did he do?  He played his butt off on JV and he was the superstar of the JV team.

He got all the playing time he wanted, he got to take all the shots he wanted, and it ended up being this first fire in him that said,  “Don’t you tell me I’m not good enough, I am gunning for this.”  Instead of saying, “Well I quit, I didn’t make varsity, and I deserved it, and this isn’t fair, I’m out of here.”

Instead of Quitting…

He said, “All right, well watch me.  Watch me handle this.”  So if she doesn’t make the team, if she doesn’t make the right team, if any of those things go wrong, what if everything is okay?  Then you can say, “Good work!  I love you and I’m so proud of you.  Let’s go get ice cream.”  Drop the expectations, drop the need to take care of her, and trust that it’s all going to be okay.

Let it Run Its Course

I think that’s the best we can do really; it’s the only thing you can control.  You’re getting her there on time, you’re feeding her, you’re taking care of her, you’re paying for private lessons, and you’re making stuff happen.  Now just let it run its course.

Okay, our final question from Ron who is a soccer dad.  He’s looking for recommendations for helping a player who has developed fear and anxiety, specifically when competing against another player.

Q: We’re not sure how or why this has developed, but seeing his anxiety is heartbreaking.



I’m sure a lot of you guys out there can relate to this.  There is usually that one person who really just irks you, gets to you, or makes you feel inadequate or anxious.  It made me think of a girl who I’m working with who is a pole vaulter.  There is a girl on a rival team who, anytime she’s there, she pretty much falls apart.

She completely crumbles because this girl is the epitome of everything she’s not.  We all have that.  It’s the woman who got married first, had a baby first, or business first.  Ugh.  It makes me feel inadequate, anxious, and nervous.  Worst of all, it makes me feel like I’m not good enough.

We probably all have somebody out there that when we look at them, we feel bad about ourselves.  Maybe not.  Maybe it’s just me.  Of course, I’ve obviously gotten over that, obviously, right?  It’s a fairly normal thing that somebody would be a trigger point for insecurity, and in this case for this little guy, this is just a big distraction.

Distracted by Thoughts

Whenever he is around this guy, my assumption is that his thoughts are, I’m not good enough, I’m not strong enough, I’m not fast enough.  This guy’s going to beat me, I’m not safe, whatever it is that just automatically triggers this whole cacophony of thoughts that are not useful.  Here is what I recommend in this situation, what I did for this pole vaulter, and what I’ve done for another swimmer whose ex-boyfriend was always a trigger at swim meets.

Use them for your mental toughness training, meaning have them be the trigger to remind you to focus.  Really what they are is a big distraction.  I’ll give you this swim team example.  This girl had a boyfriend.  He was on a different team, they broke up, and now he’s at all the swim meets and he stares her down, and acts really weird because he knows he can psych her out. It brings him this sick pleasure to distract her.

Remember to Do Your Pre-Performance Routine

I said, “Great.  We’ve been looking for something to remind you to do your pre-performance routine.  Every time you see him, remember what you need to do.”  She has a sequence of things that get her in the right mindset, and she would forget to do it because she’d just be in the meet.  Then she’d see him and go, “Ok, let me go get my playlist, let me go breathe, let me say my affirmations.”

“All right.  Now I’m going to stretch myself out, and during my warmup, I’m going to do this.”  She used him as a reminder because she knew she’d pay attention to him. She actually got grateful whenever she saw him.  She was no longer fazed by him at all.

With the pole vaulter, it was actually her idea to start training with her.  Once a week she actually would train alongside this other person so she could come up against her nerves.  She would practice focusing in on technique and focusing in on what she needed to do to make sure that her jumps were good.  She actually would say, “Okay distraction, come on in, let me train with you so that I can practice blocking you out, zoning out, pulling my focus into what’s really important.”

Come Up With a Plan

How do you handle a distraction?  You come up with a plan.  I like a plan.  A pre-performance routine for this little guy would probably be really great; he needs to find things that help him feel comfortable and confident under pressure.  There’s actually a whole course in the community on the pre-performance mindset.  It’s a mini-course where I’ll walk you through past performances, good and bad, and you look for patterns.

When you look back at your top three performances of all time, how did you prep? What did you eat?  How did you sleep?  What did you do the day before?  What did you do that morning?  How nervous were you?  What kind of energy level?  Then you figure out the patterns, the things that set you up for success, and then you go back through maybe your three worst performances.

Identify Crucial, Yet Subtle, Moments

What were you focusing on?  What did you do the night before?  The morning of?  The day of?  At pivotal moments that allowed you to crumble?  That can give you some really good information on what you personally need to have in place in order to be really good under pressure.  You get your pre-performance routine sorted out, and then whenever you see this guy, this trigger person, then it’s time for your pre-performance routine.

Once you figure out the distraction, what’s your plan for what you can do to refocus on what’s actually important?  This is probably technique, keeping your focus wide, looking for openings, guarding your person, whatever it is in that moment that’s critical.  You see the distractor, and then you go, “Oh yeah, what’s important now?”


There is even an acronym to help you remember that, it’s WIN, W-I-N, What’s Important Now?  Anytime you catch yourself focusing on something that’s not helpful, you want to be able to snap it back to what’s important now – WIN, and stay there as long as you can until your monkey mind wanders off again to the distraction.  Then you go, “Oh, what’s important now?”  The more you do it the better you get.

Instead of thinking of this person as this big threat that causes anxiety and makes them uncomfortable, think about it as a good reminder that you need to focus.

Remember what we focus on?  We already figured that out before, this, this, and this is what gets you in the zone.  We know this because we looked back at past performances and we proved that this type of focus sets you up for success.

Be Reminded to Focus

The final little exercise I’ll give you on that is to make a list of possible distractions that might come up when you’re playing that makes you anxious, makes you uncomfortable. Then next to each one write a better thing to think about, a more helpful thought.  If you tend to think, Oh no, this kid’s bigger than me, and that makes me nervous.  You might think instead, I’m fast, I’m a really fast runner.  You can just focus it on what’s positive, and what’s helpful.

That’s it for now.  For those of you in the community, of course, you can find me in the Ask Rebecca Forum.  Ask me questions like this any time and I will get back to you right away.  We have this awesome parent community where parents are supporting each other through these types of struggles and doing a phenomenal job.

I’m constantly impressed when people say, “Well, I think this is the best way to do it.” I’ll respond with, “Yes, correct, good, you’ve got this.”  I know every time I teach something it reinforces, so the ability to give back and help others in the community is pretty priceless.  Please come join us at if that appeals to you.

Confidence Ladder Worksheet

If you’re looking for some support around parenting, around your mindset, or your sport performance, come and check it out.  There’s always a free 30-day money-back guarantee, so if you’re not happy you can get on out of there, and we’ll give you your money back.

Finally, if you want a little extra something to boost your confidence or if you’re experiencing fear or mental block, you can download our Sport Confidence Roadmap.  The roadmap includes a 7-step plan along with common to get through the fear along with common mistakes you’ll want to avoid along the way.  You can download that worksheet by clicking here.

If you have any questions, please send them to me at, and I will see you again next week.  Thanks for listening.

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