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 guys, welcome to Q&A with Coach Rebecca. I am Rebecca Smith, the founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching, which is a team of highly skilled sports psychology coaching experts, who specialize and work one-on-one with athletes age 8 to 18 and beyond on all kinds of sports ranging from gymnastics, to tennis, to baseball, to basketball to you name it we can help you.

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


That’s what we do, through one-on-one coaching over Skype or face time. We also have a fabulous, amazing community that’s called the Perform Happy Community that is full of self-service mental toughness training options, as well as live coaching. It’s really the most accessible way to get a peak performance expert in your back pocket.

If you’re interested in checking that out you can do that at, and I am taking three questions. I’m going to try to get through three questions today from members of the community. I have four, but coach Diana is going to tackle one of them tomorrow, because it’s another really great question. This is all about fear, fear and anxiety, because these are the 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 here, up to your eyeballs, your confidence cannot be high. As you get your confidence up, your fear goes down, so my job, my primary purpose on this planet I believe is to help people increase confidence through decreasing fear.

These three questions are all about fear and anxiety, and they’re all different sports, so that’s cool. You can see how fear affects three different sports, or more. All right, 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. That’s what happens, is that’s what creates what we a call mental block, is where your brain makes a decision that your body may be is not so happy about.

Your brain goes, “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 the bars, to do other events, to 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. Okay, so luckily this is a member of the community, so she has access to the overcoming fear course. The first thing I’m going to say is if you haven’t already, dig into 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.

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, because fear is something, especially in gymnastics and figure skating and diving, in these like what I call scary sports, it’s something that you will always be up against as you keep up leveling your skill.

Your brain is going to keep going, “Whoa, you want to do what?” Then you have to go through the same process that gets you back what seemed like easier skills that are only going to become harder and harder as you go through the levels. The key points that I want you to know that you’re really going to get from that course are start where you are.

What Can Your Athlete Do?

If where you are is I can barely swing on the bar, which I’m guessing she’s probably beyond that, but whatever she can do. 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 can you do brain? What will you let me do today?”

Then you start with that, and you start making progress with that. You do as much of that as you possibly can to start feeling successful. That allows your brain to go, “Okay, I guess this is safe, I’ve done 100 of these, or 15, or 20, or whatever it is. Maybe I’ll try a slightly more difficult progression,” so we’ll tiptoe into a little bit, okay?

Listen to Your Brain

You have to listen to your brain, instead of being like, stupid brain come on, let me do it. You go, “Hey buddy, what should we try next? What do you think? Does that seem too scary? You’re not going for that? Okay, let’s back it up a step. Let’s try something a little bit easier.” Start with that, build your foundation, and then give it time.

Stay positive, and just every single week you want to be taking a little step forward, a little step forward, a little step forward. Of course 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, so that you can know exactly how to talk to them, and how to get everybody on your team, so that 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, come on. I want you to just do the thing, don’t be scared, just go, it’s fine. Then of course the owner of the gym is who teaches it, and he sends me his gymnasts to work with. He’s like, “Oh, why don’t you do what you tell your kids to do, is baby steps,” right? 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 go do the next one.

Taking Baby Steps

Come around and then maybe you’ll hold onto the bar, and then you can leave, you don’t have to do it. I’m like I know you’re the best kid in this class, I know you could 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. It’s okay, he’s 6’3, she’s this tiny little thing. I could see that, that could make somebody nervous.

The other day we were doing the parachute, and they had this challenge where all the little’s were supposed to run all the way around this massive parachute around all the big parents, and they come back and sit with their grown-up. She looked at me and was like, “I am not running around this whole thing without you, no way.”

I was like, “Okay, why don’t you run over to yellow, and come back.” She’s like, “Okay,” she runs over to yellow and comes back. I’m like, “How about blue?” She’s like, “Okay.” She goes past the yellow, over to the blue, comes back to me, high five. You know what? That was her success for the day, because I teach this stuff, I was able to go, “Oh my gosh, that was a success,” instead of like, “My kid sucks, my kid won’t run around the parachute, my kid is such a wimp, whatever.”

Acknowledge Success

She’s not, 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, I give her a high five, and off she goes.

That’s the concept, it’s like change our expectations as parents and coaches, and just help them out of their comfort zone little by little until they’re the one, until she’s the one who’s like, “Mommy I want to swing on the rope today.” Like, “Girl get it,” it took us a couple of weeks, but today she did it, so that’s my little example where I was like, “Oh my gosh, this stuff 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 need to forget about you’re making me look bad, and just be like you’re not even three, and I’m so proud of you for showing up. That’s what I did, we left and I was like, “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, not the you were this shining example in the class, because that’s not what it’s about, it’s about our effort. Okay, moving along, so now onto Jen’s question, so this is a cheer mom who said, she asked, “It’s the time of year for cheer tryouts, 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 I think totally applies. You have to check your expectations, if you’re like, “Oh my gosh, I really want my kid to make it. I don’t want her to be upset, I want to look good, we’ve all been working so hard. I want her to feel happy.” All of those are expectations, and expectations set you up to be upset.

Have No Expectations

I know that’s a really bold statement, because we go through our whole lives with all these expectations. If you could just go you know what? I’m expecting nothing, I don’t know, I don’t know how it’s going to go. Meanwhile you’ve got maybe a couple of weeks, maybe a month, maybe less to just focus on what’s within your control, okay?

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, you can get her private lessons. You can 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 that she can have.

When we have a mental block I can’t just rush Ruby around that parachute, I can’t just be like, “Go, it’s time, tryouts time, go, run around the parachute.” She’s going to be like, “Forget you, I’m out of here.” Her brains 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 like 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. The State meets coming up, I don’t know how I’m going to do, I’m so stressed.” I’m like, “Okay, write it all down, what are you worried about?”

Worry Box

Mom, I’m saying you could 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. I’m worried,” just write it all out, and then fold it up, and put it in your worry box, and shut it, and then 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, and then from there you have to let go.

Then my final note on this question before I move to the next one, is that I’m the kind of person who likes to think everything happens for a reason. I don’t know if everything happens for a reason, because I don’t have a crystal ball, and I can’t see the whole universe. Then, I do know that it makes me feel better, it makes 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, overcome 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. Failing out of school, like there were a lot of things that went wrong in my life. Divorce, I had all these, “Failures.”

I look back on them and I’m like, “Thank goodness, thank goodness that didn’t pan out, thank goodness that guy didn’t work out, thank goodness, because the life I have today is immeasurably more wonderful than anything I could’ve imagined.” I can look back and go, “Oh yeah, okay, whatever is running this universe is taking care of me just fine, because 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 it’s 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, and a lot of people know he was cut from his high school varsity basketball team, 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, but they did let another sophomore who was 6 foot 7 on the team, and Michael Jordan was only 5’10. He was livid, he was like, “I belong on that team, I should be on that team, and they didn’t let me on. They don’t believe in me, so you know what? I am going to go play my butt off in JV.”

He did, 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 was like, “Don’t you tell me I’m not good enough, I am gunning for this.” Instead of being, “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 was like, “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, I’m so proud of you, let’s go get ice cream, what’s next?” It’s drop the expectations, drop the need to take care of her, and trust that it’s all going to be okay.

Let it Run it’s 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, you’re making stuff happen. Now just let it run its course. Okay, final question from Ron, who is a soccer dad. He’s looking for recommendations for helping a player who has developed fear and anxiety when specifically competing against another player.

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



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

She completely crumbles, because this girl’s the epitome of everything she’s not. We all have that, “Oh, this girl who just keeps getting married before me, and has a baby before me, and starts a business before me.” I’m like, “Ugh,” it makes me feel inadequate, it makes a full anxious, it makes me feel nervous, it makes me feel like I’m not good enough.

We probably all got somebody out there that’s like, “Oh, when I look at you I feel bad about myself.” Maybe not, maybe it’s just me, but 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, he’s distracted by these thoughts, that’s 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, okay? 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, okay? I’ll give you this swim team example. This girl had this 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 just 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 all these 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, “Oh no, oh yeah, okay, 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’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to get my pre performance routine going.” She was no longer fazed by him at all.

Okay, with this pole vaulter I had her, well I didn’t have her, it was actually her idea to start training with her. Once a week she actually would train alongside this other person, so that she could come up against her nerves and practice focusing in on technique, 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. The things that help him feel comfortable and confident under pressure, and 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 ones and bad ones, and you look for patterns.

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, okay, so these are the things that set you up for success, and then you go back through maybe your three worst performances.

Identify Crucial, Yet Subtle, Moments

Go okay, 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 do 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 you’re like, “Oh yeah, pre performance routine time here we go.”

You figure out what’s the distraction? What’s your plan for what you can do to refocus on what’s actually important, which 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 focused 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 like, “Hey, good, what a good reminder that you need to focus,” okay? 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

That can allow him to be more confident, so and 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 make you anxious, make you uncomfortable. Then next to each one write a better thing to think about, a more helpful thought. If you tend to go, “Oh no, this kids bigger than me, and that makes me nervous.”

You might think, “I’m fast, I’m a really fast runner,” and you can just focus it onto what’s positive, and what’s helpful. That’s, that for now, those of you guys 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 actually.

I’m constantly impressed when people are like, “Well, I think this is the best way to do it.” I’m like, “Yes, correct, good, you guys got this.” I know every time I teach something it reinforces, so the ability to give back and help others in the community I think 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, 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. Then finally if you want a little extra something to boost your confidence if you’re experiencing fear or mental block, you can download a worksheet.

It’s basically an eight-week plan to get through the fear, and that’s just a simple worksheet you can download here.

It’s the confidence ladder worksheet, and any questions send them to me,, and I will see you again next week. Thanks for listening, bye.

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