Overcoming Your Sport Phobia | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Overcoming Your Sport Phobia


About Me

Hi everybody.  Welcome to our weekly live Q&A with Coach Rebecca. I am here on the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page to answer questions from members of the Perform Happy community. Just a little background on me, if you are new to this gig, I’m Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching.

The Complete Performance Coaching Team

We are a team of skilled sports psychology experts who specialize in helping athletes, especially younger athletes, overcome things like fear, mental blocks, lack of confidence, self-doubt.  We build that confidence, get out of the fear, and unlock peak performance, which is obviously what you want to see for your kids if you’re a parent, what you want to see for your athletes if you’re a coach, and what you want to experience if you’re an athlete.

You want to be able to go out there on competition day and be the best possible version of yourself.  That is what we do through really fun and simple exercises.  Those are done through one-on-one coaching or in the community, which is the Complete Online Mental Toughness Training Center where you can join in with other athletes who are going through our automated programs, doing virtual coaching with us in the forums, joining in for our live training sessions.  There’s a little bit of something for everybody.  There’s even parent coaching, so, join us at performhappy.com.

This week’s member questions are for gymnasts and cheer tumblers. It’s about tumbling, but don’t worry, I’m going to relate it to a bunch of other sports, because fear is fear.  You hear me talk a lot about it because a lot of people are affected by it, so it’s my personal mission to overcome fear for you all.  It’s something I’ve had to do in my personal life and something that I’m really passionate about.

Here’s our question. This mom asks,

Q: Can you address for our gymnasts/cheer tumblers, why for some kiddos with a mental block, it’s a tumbling surface issue?  My kid can do all her tumbling on the trampoline or tumble track or do back handsprings on a bed, but will not do any of it on a spring floor.  Need advice.



Okay, so it’s really an environmental thing.  When you think about fear and what actually creates the phenomenon of a mental block, it’s your brain having a reaction to something.

A Phobia

It’s essentially a phobia that gets created in athletes when there’s a certain skill that you’ve done before, and you’ve done it safely.  You’ve done it proficiently, you maybe didn’t even have a fall or any reason necessarily to lose confidence on this skill, but this automatic skill that you used to have is for some reason not working.

Then these kids start to get them back on the tumble track, on the trampoline, maybe even in the back yard with their mom.  I’ve seen so many different scenarios where the kid can do it with mom on a mat in the backyard, but can’t do it on a mat with a coach in the gym, or can do it on a trampoline, but not on this type of trampoline, only that type of trampoline.  She can only do it over here, but not over there.

The Brain is Sensitized

People are like, “She’s doing it, she’s done it before, why can’t she just transfer that to this other surface?”  The reason is that the brain, for whatever reason, has become sensitized toward that skill.  It honestly doesn’t even matter.  A lot of the time coaches will say, “Why are you afraid?  Why are you afraid?”  The kid’s response is, “I don’t know, it just won’t work.  It’s just not happening.”  It’s not a rational thing that’s happening, it’s that the brain stops you from going.

One of two reasons why the brain stops the body from going – either the brain senses the potential for pain or injury, or there’s just too much unknown.  If there’s too much unknown, the brain is going to make the safe choice and go, “Sorry, I don’t trust this, so I’m going to stop.  I’m going to cut circuit to the body, you can’t go.”

Your Brain’s Prior Experience

Maybe if you’re on a big squishy bed, your brain is thinks, chance of pain and injury are low.  We’ve done this, I’ll allow it.  Or you go on a trampoline, same thing.  It’s like, okay, the issue here is that there is not enough power so you might land on your head, but on a trampoline you’ve got enough power, I’ll allow it.  Your brain allows certain surfaces, but not others.

This happens with other sports with environments.  For example, a baseball player might be solid, cannot miss in the backyard playing with his brother, but then he goes up against a team of guys that he goes to high school with, or guys his age, and all of a sudden he chokes; he can’t hit the ball and everything gets messed up, or then he’s playing against a team full of guys that should be way better than him and he does fine.  There’s this certain weird mismatch.  Why not there?  It comes back to threat.

Your Brain Feels Threatened

It feels unsafe.  In those other situations, like for a swimmer who can hit their times every single practice, but then they get into competition and their brain’s says, “Not safe, not safe, not safe.”  That fear of pain can be emotional, it can be social, it can be physical. There might be all kinds of different things going on.

Figure skaters who start popping their jumps, or not attempting jumps, or circling when there’s someone in their peripheral vision. Even though they’re 15 feet away, totally safe distance, their brain goes tells them it’s not safe.  Here is how you get through it:

Let’s say you’ve identified that this is a sticky spot where for whatever reason, you cannot get your kid to go for this surface, or this environment, or with this coach, or any number of interesting, and not awesome variables that are inconvenient when you’re trying to train.  You have to just assume there’s a phobia there.  So how do you solve a phobia?

How do you Solve a Phobia?

I did a bunch of research into this as I was digging into how you get through one of these sort of irrational fears.  One analogy I just love, that you might have heard from me before, is when they’re working through a fear of elevators.

Fear of Elevators

Let’s say somebody has a big phobia of elevators.  Yes, elevators are kind of sketchy if you think about it.  You’re getting closed in a box and put through a weird tunnel in a building, and then hopefully let out by something that’s totally out of your control.  I don’t personally have a phobia, and for those of you that don’t have phobia’s of elevators, you can see why that can be scary.

Some people cannot stand in front of an elevator without being completely panicky and terrified, let alone watch the doors open and close, or get in, or go up a floor; that’s just completely out of the question.  Same with airplanes, some people will not step foot on an one.

It’s not necessarily rational, because you can look at statistics and see how many people actually are injured by elevators.  It’s super-duper slim, so it’s not based on reality, but there’s this brain level reaction that is saying, “This is not safe, we’re not doing it,” then your whole body goes into total alarm bells saying do not go in there, you may not go in there.

Systematic Desensitization

How do you solve it?  Well, it’s through a process called systematic desensitization, which is the foundation of all of my fear and overcoming fear work, where you go in little by little and get the brain to get comfortable with little approximations of it.

Here’s the elevator example:

You go and stand in front of the elevator, panicking – breathe, use some skills to just be okay, and then go home.  The brain will chalk that up as I was safe.  I looked at the elevator and I went home safe.  Next day, you look at the elevator, maybe watch the doors open and close, and you go home safe.

Then the next day, or more like weeks later, you would finally be dipping your toe in the elevator and then pulling it back out and going home, or you’d be putting your arm in and someone’s holding the door, you run in, you run out, and then you go home.  Then you put your whole body in, someone keeps the doors open, maybe you’re in there for five seconds, and then maybe it’s 10 seconds, and you go home.

Overcoming Your Sport PhobiaTaking Baby Steps

Eventually, when you’ve been able to calm down enough at each of those different stages, they can close the doors and then open them and you can go home.

On and on until eventually, you’re closing the doors, you’re going up a floor, you’re opening the doors, you’re getting out safe.  The brain is keeping track, keeping score of all these times where you didn’t feel traumatized, because you’ve been prepared for it through building the confidence.  You’ve done this 12 times and you were okay every time.

Let’s take a little leap out of the comfort zone here and get more comfortable with that and then a little leap again, get more comfortable with that, and then eventually, you’re free to ride elevators as you please, but it is not an overnight process.

Getting Thrown Into It

When I work with kids and they want to speed up the elevator process, and let’s say the psychologist who’s helping you through your phobia says, “Let’s get this show on the road,” and they just toss you in the elevator, maybe on the day where you’re just dipping your toe in, they close the doors.  They send you to the roof.  Do you think you’d get over your fear faster, or do you think you’d be worse off?

The kids response is, “I’m not sure, maybe you would be over your fear, because you made it?”  Yes,  but wouldn’t that be a terrifying situation?  You’re so terrified by the time you get to the roof that you’re thought process is, “I don’t trust that psychologist, I don’t trust elevators, I’m done.  I’m not doing this.  I don’t ever want to do this ever again.”  That’s why it’s so critical to go slowly.

Starting from Scratch

Now, back to the surfaces – a different coach, a different environment, or whatever it is that seems to be really sensitizing the brain, you might already be good to go with your back handsprings on the tumble track, but you need to start from scratch on the floor, and that’s totally normal.  This is something that kids beat themselves up about a lot. It’s, “Why can’t I?”  Well, it doesn’t matter why, but what we do about it is we start where we are.

If on the floor, without mats or without spots, all you can do is a backbend, or some really simple progression, then that is step one, and that’s where you start.  If you can get rid of the criticism of, “But I can do it over there and I should be able to, and my friend can do that, and I wish I could.  This is dumb.  I’m just going to try it.  I’m just going to throw myself in the elevator,” basically you hit a wall, you feel terrified, and you don’t want to try it again which makes it worse.

Don’t be a Hero

Instead of trying to be a hero, you just start with a backbend and you make 15 of them. Then you go onto the jumping backbend, then you go onto the standing back handspring with a heavy spot, then you go onto the standing back handspring with a little bitty spot, or a medium spot, or a three quarter spot.  You take your little, tiny, baby steps all along the way and get the ego out of the way with, “I should be able to do it here, because I can do it over here.”  Well, there is no should in brain safety.

It’s not rational and it doesn’t make sense, so just start where you are and take baby steps forward and know that you are desensitizing your brain, little by little.  You don’t want to shock it, because then you’re back at the beginning, back at square one.  That’s where a lot of people are yo-yoing back and forth.

Just Go With It

Once you get that this is normal, it’s okay, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to get through this, it just means you have to start at a different place here than with others. Certain coaches, you might have to start at a different place than with other coaches who you feel safer with.  That might be on a physical level, it might be on an emotional level.  Don’t judge it, just go with it.  Your brain is in charge, so listen to it.

Now, in the community, there’s this overcoming fear course where I walk you through that step-by-step, exactly how to build your plan, and exactly how other people have structured theirs.  The perk with being a member is that you can reach out to me and say my goal for this week is, five standing backbends with a coach, whatever it is.

Have Check In’s

The next week, you check in and you go, “I did it,” or “I didn’t do it.”  Then what I can help you do is massage your plan and figure out.  “Oh look, you tried to go way too fast in the elevator,” and almost always that’s what I’m doing, is saying, “Slow down, slow down, slow down,” and all the coaches say, “Speed up, speed up, speed up,” and the kids go, “Let me get this show on the road.”  I’m in the background, usually with mom, because mom’s been hanging out in the Facebook group, watching the kids who are successful going slowly, and we’re like, “Slow down, slow down.”

Don’t worry that you’re on the surface and you’re having trouble.  There’s so many people in that same position, so just let go of the “should” and the where you want to be or where you think you should be, and just make little steps every day.  Don’t avoid it because it’s scary.  Don’t think you’re just going to stay on tumble track.  No, go to the step where you can get started on the floor and then go from there.

Olympian Have Fear, Too

One other thing I’d love to share is that Olympian Samantha Peszek was an Olympian in 2008.  I heard a story that she actually needed a warm-up spot on bars all the way up until the Olympics.  She had fears on bars where she needed her coach to be there, guiding her through her warm-up, so that her brain could chill out and then she could go for it.  Obviously she’s had great success.  If you’re the kind of person who just needs a warm-up spot, or just needs to start on the trampoline and then move, that’s okay.

Don’t think that you’re going to need to get over that, or coaches are really diehard about, “You got to do it without a spot on the first one, otherwise you can’t compete this weekend.”  Just give them a spot, just give them a warm-up spot, and let their brain simmer, get comfortable, wrack up a success and then they’ll do it without you.  A lot of us hard line and we don’t spot.  I can’t get behind, because I’ve seen so much success from just a little bit of help here and there.

All right, anybody who has other questions, you can email me rebecca@performhappy.com.  I’ll try to get to them.  Of course I always prioritize members of the community.  If you want to join us, come on over today, performhappy.com and we’d love to have you.  Thanks for joining me, we’ll see you soon.

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