Dealing with the What If’s in Sport | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Dealing with the What If’s in Sport


About Me

Hi everybody.  Welcome to Q&A with Coach Rebecca.  I’m Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching.  We are a group of high performance experts who specialize in working with young athletes on things like overcoming fear, building confidence, and unlocking peak performance potential.

We do this in two different ways, through one-on-one coaching with myself or with any of the other fabulous Complete Performance Coaching coaches, or if you’re more virtually inclined, we have a whole online membership-based complete training facility for your mind at  That is this really exciting community full of people, sport parents, athletes, and tons of self-support training.

You can get through your sport anxiety, learn to trust yourself, and become more mentally tough all through specialized training that’s in bite-sized pieces.  You can train in the car on the way to practice, on the way home, on a Sunday afternoon.  It’s really flexible because I know the life of a sport family is wild and crazy.

What If?

Today I’m going to answer a couple of questions from members of the Perform Happy community, both are gymnasts.  Now, I know I talk a lot about gymnastics, so don’t worry if your athlete is not a gymnast. Don’t be afraid.  You can learn from this, too.  What we’re going to be addressing specifically is what I’m calling the “what-ifs”.  Just think to yourself, whether you’re a kid, parent, or coach, how often do you get stuck in the what-if?

This whole big story starts to build in your mind because you’re wondering, “Well, what if this happens? And if that happened, then this could go wrong.  Oh my gosh.  This might be awful.  I don’t even want to deal.  I just want to go climb under the covers.”  Honestly, that’s the biggest thing that we as humans can get better at – letting go of what-ifs and finding what is.  What is real?  What is actually on our plate in this moment?

Getting Through it the First Time

Walk one foot at a time into whatever feels scary and you’ll probably notice that it won’t kill you.  It wasn’t that hard.  You’d probably want to do it again.  I think about my husband who never wants to go to a party.  He never wants to do anything social, which if you met him, you’d be baffled, because he’s the most socially capable guy you’ve ever met.

He’s so charming and wonderful, but he’s like, “I don’t want to.  I don’t know these people,” or, “I know those people too well,” or whatever.  He doesn’t want to go.  Then, every time he goes, he has a really great time and is so glad he went.  If you’re in that, “What if … Argh,” it’s never going to make your experience better.  It’s better just to go, “Okay.  Let’s try it out and see what happens,” which is easier said than done when you have a particularly fearful child.

I’ll get to the first question here which comes from Katie.  She just joined the Perform Happy community and started the Overcoming Fear course.  She said,

Q: My daughter and I just watched the first two videos of session one.  She became so tearful at times and gave me a lot of what-ifs. I tried to support her and say, ‘Let’s focus on what you can do and not all the what-ifs.’ One thing I heard was, ‘What if my coach makes me?  I have to listen to her, because I don’t want to say no, and then I won’t be able to do it.’  She was talking about back walkovers on beam and how her coach wants her to start with her leg up.  She’s only eight and sometimes has a hard time communicating with her coaches.”



I’ve heard this a lot, actually.  As soon as people hear my personal story, they tear up because they know it’s exactly what happened for them.  The first time I could relate to somebody on that same level with my fear, I teared up, too, and though, “Oh my gosh.  Okay.  It’s real.  I have to deal with it because it’s here in front of me.  I’m hearing examples of other people going through it, and it’s a lot to take in.” Then, she also had this fear of talking to her coach.

The fact that an eight-year-old could immediately touch on that, that was what was scary for her while she’s watching the videos, that is huge.  That means that there’s a big chance for her to get this because that, especially for kids 7, 8, 9, 10, can be very difficult, the idea of going to your coach and saying, “I don’t think I can do what you just asked me to do.  May I have an alternate option?”

Don’t Avoid It

Now, the way that I train kids to get through fear and mental blocks is not to avoid.  Don’t get me wrong. It is not about, “I can’t do it.  I’m not doing it.”  Believe me, we want you walking into your fear bit by bit, but coaches don’t understand the speed that works the way that we in the community understand, because we’ve watched hundreds of kids walk through this fear.  We get that if you are not feeling right, and there’s a difference between feeling nervous but okay, and feeling terrified, and you know you’re not going to go for something.

If you know I am not going to try that back walkover on the beam with my leg up, my brain won’t let me. Every time I start to go back, I feel like I’m going to hit a brick wall.  This is not going to work.  An eight-year-old can identify the difference between those two feelings, the butterfly nerves in her tummy, that go, “Woo.  This is going to be a challenge,” or, “This is not going to work.  This is actually going to make my confidence lower by trying this, whatever this drill is that I’m being asked to do.”  What we’re asking those eight-year-olds to do is to say, “Excuse me, coach.  I would really like to be able to do that, but I don’t feel comfortable in this moment,” or, “I don’t feel confident enough to try that yet.  Would it be okay to get a spot, or would be it okay to start with my leg down, or would it be okay to do it with my leg up but on a different beam?”

Communicate and Take Baby Steps

That’s what I’d recommend Mom, is you come up with a line, something that she can even practice with you that’s, “Excuse me, coach.  I’m not feeling confident enough to try that right now.  Could we try this instead?”  That in itself may be scarier than the back walkover for this little girl.  But let’s say that in a given practice her coach is asking her to do five things that she does not feel safe to do, if she can speak up once, that could be the goal for the week.  Then, maybe if she can speak up twice, that’s the goal for next week.

I’m always talking about baby steps.  When it comes to communication, it’s the same thing.  That’s just as terrifying.  If you can say, “All right, out of 20 chances, just speak up.  Let’s just pick one to take,” and maybe at some point today just to say, “Excuse me, coach. I don’t feel confident enough to try that yet, but I think I could do it with a spot.  Could I have a couple of spots?”

Dealing with the What If's in SportSpeak to the Coach

Then, if coach says no, well, then we’re back in the same boat.  That’s something that I think would require a conversation with the coach.  Some coaches are not very welcoming and warm to the idea of kids giving them suggestions.  I’m guessing with eight-year-olds it’s probably a little bit more acceptable than if you’re 15.  But then, at the same time, you’re going to be more confident to be able to talk to them.

In that case, if you have a coach that’s really not being very helpful, not being very flexible, it might be good to actually have mom reach out to the coach.  This is with a younger kid.  If anyone’s over 10, this is definitely a talk for the kid to have with the coach themselves.  But anybody under, it might be so intimidating that you might as well just bring the family in, talk to the coach, and say, “Hey, coach.  We’re working with Coach Rebecca.  Here’s what she recommends.  Would it be okay if we tried this for a week or so, that if she doesn’t feel comfortable she’ll tell you?  Then you let her take the lead a little bit.”

You and the Coach Want the Same Thing

Ideally, the coach has the same goals as you.  The coach wants her to be successful.  The coach wants her to feel safe and build confidence, so you can say, “Hey, coach. I  think we have a way.”  Then, everybody comes together.  You can try it out and see what happens.  Usually it’ll be two, three weeks of coach and kid not having the same agenda and having to work that out, but as long as she’s willing to start speaking up, she will get through it.  She’s not alone.

That is almost always the reason why younger kids get mental blocks, because they can’t speak up and say, “I don’t feel safe right now,” even though it’s a safe skill.  If you don’t feel safe, you must say something so that you don’t get your brain all spaced out about, “This is not safe.”  The next thing you know, it’s been six months and you haven’t tumbled.

It’s worth it.  Hopefully you can encourage her to speak up.  If it’s going to be very difficult, bring the coach in.  Have a meeting.  Talk it out.  Come up with a plan together as a trio or a quad of parents, athlete, and coach, and go from there.

Now, the next question comes from Jamie.  She said her daughter was on a huge roll getting new skills, overcoming fear, had like four consecutive days of new skills, new skills, new skills.  She’s a little bit farther into the program than the previous girl we were talking about.  Then she hurt her hand.  She had some kind of arm or hand injury and so she couldn’t do either of the two skills that she’s been working so hard at regaining confidence on.  Mom said,

Q: My daughter was on a huge roll of new skills.  Then she injured herself.  Now, she’s showing fear of going back to her skills that she had been trying to overcome the fear of before the injury.  Injury was the hand/wrist.  She hasn’t been able to do the two skills she’s afraid of.  I was hoping the new skill roll would give her confidence to move forward with her fears, but now I’m afraid she’s going to avoid them all together with a new fear of not having done them over in over a week.  How does she keep her current confidence and relaxation and go right back to working what she’s afraid of?



A couple things there.  The first thing I want to notice is there’s a little bit of what-if coming from Mom.  What if she’s scared again?  Okay, she’s seeing it, but she’s asking, “What if this is the end?  Oh my gosh.” Then, the kid is saying, “What if I can’t because my wrist was hurt because I haven’t done it for a week?” We don’t know until we try, right?

What If It Goes Fine?

Why don’t we just go ahead and assume it’ll be fine?   Like my little eight-year-old, let’s assume the coach is going to sat, “No problem, hun.  I’ll give you a spot.”  Great.  Assume that.  Why not?  Because if we don’t know the future, we’re really technically making up stories in our mind anyway.  The story we typically make up as humans is that it’s going to be awful.  So why don’t we just go, “It’s going to be great! I’m going to get back on that hand and keep cruising forward”?

After you have a setback, if you’re tired, if you hurt yourself, if you go on vacation, if you have a bad day at school, any of those things can totally set you up to have a less confident week.  It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or that it’s not solvable.  You go in realistically and you say, “All right, brain.  Let’s see where we’re at today.”

You go and start at something a little easier than you probably need to just in case, because it’s always good to get started off feeling confident and then moving from there instead of thinking, “Oh no.  I was doing this last week and now this feels scary,” just start back a step and try it out.

Communicate with Your Brain

The best way to communicate with your brain is to follow the two-balk rule.  If you balk twice, meaning you freeze up or you don’t go for it, then your brain is sending you a clear message – “I don’t feel ready it, so I need it to be a little easier.”  It doesn’t mea it’s over.  If the fear is back, not everything is out the window.  It just means you need to back it up a step and build confidence.

You might assume that you go in that week and you need to build confidence, and so you start back easy, basics, and “Ooh, I’m doing great on the basics.  Okay.  Cool.  Now let’s make it really easy with lots of mats and spots.  Well, that’s going well.  Awesome.  Let’s take it up a notch,” instead of starting where you left off and then being disappointed if it’s not so easy to get back into it.

Don’t Assume it’s Going to be Awful

Don’t assume it’s going to be awful.  What if it goes well? You know, what if it was great?  What if she got back up and it was amazing and her confidence came right back?  And if it doesn’t, then you focus on what’s controllable.  I was thinking about my grandpa Jack, wise ol’ grandpa Jack who used to say, “The secret to life … ”

He told me this when I was around eight years old.  He said, “Rebecca, the secret to life is don’t worry about anything you don’t have control over.”   That really is the secret to fear, the secret to confidence, and is the secret to feeling happier in general.  If you don’t have control over it, then don’t worry about it. There’s nothing you can do, right?

Don’t Worry About What you Can’t Control

If you don’t have control over how your coaches will react, we try to let go of that.  If you don’t have control over the fact you got injured, well, we can’t really worry about that.  What can you do?  You know, you can get up there.  You can check in with your intuition, with your brain, with your mind, and go, “Okay.  What feels good today?  Well, not that.  Okay.  Let’s try something else.”  What else can you control?  The way you talk to your coaches and the way that you manage your thinking.

If you notice that you’re in this what-if zone, pull it back to what is.  What is?  I hurt my wrist. Now I’m back.  Let’s see what happens.  What is?  I don’t feel safe to try this.  My heart is pounding because I’m nervous to talk to my coach, but I know that the thing I need to do in this moment is say, “Excuse me, coach.  Can I please have a spot?”  If my coach refuses to spot me, here’s how I will respond.  If you get a plan in place to control what you can and then you’re just ready to let go of the rest, the journey will be a lot more palatable.

All right everybody.  Thank you for joining me.  For those of you members, of course, you can find me in the Ask Rebecca forum any time.  Send me those questions, and I’ll respond to them as they come in.  I’ll be back again next week to answer some questions live.  See you soon.


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