Working Through Fear with Coaches & Private Lessons | Q&A with Coach Sara

Today’s Topic: Working Through Fear with Coaches & Private Lessons

Hello everyone.  I’m coach Sara with Complete Performance Coaching.  Today we’re going to talk about working through fear with coaches and private lessons.

A lot of our gymnasts are dealing with fear.  Unfortunately, that’s very normal, but when your athlete is going through it, they often feel like they’re alone.  They feel like they’re the only one in the gym who is struggling through this fear.

Today we’re going to talk about the role that coaches and private lessons play in that. Often when I work with athletes one-on-one, parents will ask, “Should they be working extra on this?  What can we ask the coach to do?  Should we be asking the coach to do anything?”

We’re going to talk about some of those things,  but first let’s talk a little bit about mental blocks.

Mental Blocks

Mental blocks, or fears, whatever you want to call them, are awful.  They’re awful for your gymnasts, for you, and the coach hates them too.  The team might struggle when an athlete is dealing with a fear or a mental block.

Your athlete may struggle a lot with fears, which is very normal.  It’s normal to be scared of something.  A mental block is more of an extreme fear.  This may be when your athlete won’t go for a skill or has a hard time going for a skill.  When an athlete is dealing with fear, sometimes they can push through it, they’re just uncomfortable and they don’t like it.  They don’t like the way they feel, but they can do it.

Whether it’s a fear or a mental block, the coach and private lessons might play a role in that.

Logical Fear

Fear and mental blocks can both happen for logical reasons.  If your athlete falls or suffers an injury on a skill, they’re probably going to be scared moving forward.  That just logically makes sense.  This can also happen if your athlete has a teammate fall or get hurt.  Now, they didn’t fall themselves, they’ve always been safe on a skill, but now they’re feeling scared because they saw a teammate go through it.

Vicarious experiences can influence athletes in positive ways and negative ways.

Illogical Fears

While fears and blocks can happen for logical reasons, they can also seem very illogical.  Maybe your athlete had a small fall.  They didn’t get hurt, it wasn’t that scary of a fall, but now all of a sudden they’re scared.  That small incident triggered something much bigger and it feels very irrational and illogical.

Working Through Fears

We’re going to talk a little bit about how you mentally work through fear even if you can’t rationalize that fear.  A lot of times for gymnasts, they don’t always understand why they’re scared which can be very frustrating.

Sometimes fears literally come out of nowhere.  Your athlete was fine and now all of a sudden they’re struggling.  This is why it’s so it’s important to know that when I talk to my athletes about this, I remind them those fears are rooted in biology.  Fear is part of what’s meant to keep us safe and alive.<

Good Fear

Without this instinct we would walk into oncoming traffic.  Our kids would do every single thing that gives us heart attacks as parents.  They wouldn’t think twice.  So fear is healthy and it helps us.

In a sport like gymnastics, fear certainly has a place.  If your athlete is feeling fear, that might be because they’re not ready to do a skill.  It might also mean that they’re pushing themselves or maybe a coach is pushing them a little too much, and that’s not good.  So fear can be helpful.  We want it to kick in during those times where maybe they’re not really ready to go for a skill.

Unhelpful Fear

Fear can also happen for reasons that are not so helpful.  In a sport like gymnastics, athletes are asking their bodies to do things that are challenging and that can seem a bit unnatural, but ideally, they’re training.  Ideally they’re getting support and doing drills so they are prepared, but that sort of natural instinct to protect themselves can kick in.  Think about it parents, many of you probably haven’t ever done gymnastics.  If you asked yourself to do those things, you’d probably be terrified, right?

So hopefully they’re trained well, they do the progressions, they do drills, and they’re ready to physically do these skills.  It’s important to know that mentally they’re not always caught up with where they should be physically.  When that fear comes up, that’s a sign that they’re not ready.  That’s good to listen to.

Talking to the Coach

I think we want to talk to our athlete, to tell them, “It’s okay.  Let’s talk about this fear.  Do you feel ready?  Are you are you training well?  Have you done the drills?  Have you done the progression?”

Those might be things that you actually want to talk to the coach about.  If your athlete is saying, “Well, no, I haven’t.  My coach is asking me to do the back handspring on the high beam but I’ve only done it on the low beam.  I haven’t even  done it on the middle beam yet.”  This indicates your athlete might be having the fear because they’re just physically not ready to do it.

Four Areas of Working Through Fear

Fear is frustrating.  It’s hard for everybody – no one likes it.  Generally when I work with athletes, there are four different areas that I consistently work on.  It’s probably a different order for everybody, and there might be different pieces that we add in depending on the athlete, but here they are:

1. Thoughts

We always have to work on their thoughts.  Athletes who are scared and dealing with mental blocks are always having some thoughts that are not helpful.  They may be thinking, “I’m going to fall.  I can’t do it.  What if I let my coach down.  I don’t want to do this series today.”  Whatever it is, they have these thoughts that are not helpful.

2. Feelings

They also have feelings that are not working for them.  When you’re thinking that way, you’re going to feel overwhelmed, you’re going to feel scared, you’re going to feel jittery or tight or nervous.  It’s not good to do gymnastics from that place, and that’s part of what physically holds them back.

3. Images

The third area, and again, not necessarily in this order, we work on images.  This is what they’re seeing in their head.  In addition to thinking, “Oh I might fall,” they’re picturing it again and again.  Maybe they used to picture themselves doing the skill and now they can’t see it anymore.  That’s terrifying because they feel like if they can’t see it in their head, how can they physically do it?

4. Communication

The fourth area that typically is involved is communication.  This area really has to do with the coaches and the physical aspect of working through fear.  As important as our mental skills are to working through fears and blocks, your athlete still has to physically do the skill and has to physically work on it.

In an ideal world, we’re working on the mental skills but the coach is also supporting the athlete physically with how they’re working on the skills.  When those can come together, that’s great.

Communication can be communicating with the coach about the fact that a fear or a block exists.  Your coach might not really understand the depth of your athlete’s fear.

Understanding Fear

Fears can be frustrating for coaches because they’ve seen the athlete do the skill so they’re  thinking, “You’ve done it, I know you can do it, just do it again,” and your athlete is terrified and frozen by fear and the coach just doesn’t understand.

I feel like they should understand by now, with all of these fears that athletes have gone through, but it’s hard to understand that if you’ve never experienced it yourself (and not all gymnastics coaches have had their own fears and blocks that they struggle with).  So by simply communicating with the coach that you’re dealing with this fear but also mentally working on it (that’s great to add in there), you’re letting the coach know what’s going on that’s an important.

Coach Needs to Understand

Typically when it’s communication that we’re working on, a big piece of it is talking to the coach and letting them know that the fear exists, how it affects them, and what they’re doing to work on it, because if the coach doesn’t really understand it then they’re not able to to go that next step of helping the athlete physically work on this skill.

Confidence Ladder

A lot of times when I’m working with an athlete on a skill that they’re scared of, part of what we do is called a confidence ladder.  I think a handful of our coaches do this, too. The idea of a confidence ladder is that we look at where the athlete is now.  Where they are now is marked on the ladder, maybe not the bottom because they’ve done some work, so maybe a few rungs up, and where they’re trying to go is at the top of the ladder, that top rung that they’re trying to get to.

We’ll use an example of a common fear for gymnasts on beam – back handsprings in series.   Let’s say right now you feel pretty okay on the low beam with mats, but need to get it on high beam with no spot in your routine by a certain date.  We want to figure out – you’re here, you want to go here.  What are the rungs that you need to climb up to get there?  We break it down really specifically so it’s not just low beam, middle beam, high beam.  It might be low beam with mats, low beam with half mats, low beam with no mats, middle beam with full mats, middle beam with one mat, and so on.

The confidence ladder gives you a very clear idea of how you can get from where you are now to where you want to go.  This is something that I work on with athletes.  This becomes their ideal plan.

Physical Coach vs. Mental Coach

Now, I’m not telling them what these steps should be.  I’m not their physical coach, I’m their mental coach.  I’m helping them come up with what their ideal progressions would be in this confidence ladder.

Here’s the thing, though.  We want coaches on board with this, so this is where the communication ideally comes in with the coach.  The athlete says, “I know I’m struggling, but listen… we have the  same goals.  I want to get my series on beam (or fill in the blank of whatever the fear is) and I want to get this skill, but I’m struggling with it.  I came up with a plan of how I think I can get there.  Can you support me on this?”

Taking care of the mental aspect gives you a basis for talking to the coach about your plan and hopefully you have supportive coaches.  I think that a coach, even if they don’t feel super supportive, is probably going to be more open if you come in saying, “I’m struggling with this skill but I have the same goals as you.  I want to get the skill and I don’t want to be scared anymore.  Can I tell you my thoughts about how I can ultimately get there?”

This is where, ideally, the coach supports this.  In practice they give your athlete the time they need.  Maybe everyone else is working on their series on mid beam and high beam but they let your athlete be on the low beam with the mats.  Then they’re unstacking them and then they move up.

Slow and Steady

These confidence ladders are typically slow, but it’s slow and steady.  The idea is that you are so confident at this rung and you’re ready to go to the next one.  Of course you are – you just did 25 reps on the low beam with no mats.  You feel ready to go to the mid beam with stacked mats.  The whole idea of the confidence ladder is that they get so much time at one rung that they feel great about going to the next.

Even with a supportive coach they might feel like they don’t have time for that and say, “We can’t do all of those things in practice,” or there’s just not that much time in their rotation.

Private Lessons

This is where private lessons can be a fantastic addition to helping your athlete work through fear.  Now, private lessons are obviously time and money, right?  We don’t have unlimited amounts of either, so I 100% understand that, but you’re already spending time and money on this, right?  You’re spending money for your athlete to be in the gym, and they might be miserable, and they’re not doing the training anyway.

You’re spending time and energy on being frustrated and your athlete is too.  These private lessons, even though it’s spending your resources of time and money, can be very beneficial when working through a fear or a block.  These privates are where they can work up the ladder in their own time.

Also, part of it goes back to that communication.  It’s really being willing to talk with the coach, and in an ideal world, your athlete can do that.  We can empower them to talk to the coach, maybe bring in the confidence ladder, but sometimes athletes need our support.  Especially if you’re the one literally writing the check, you can go to those coaches and say, “Listen, we’d like to do a couple of privates on her back handspring or on her series, but we really would like for her to be able to work in this way.  Can you support us on that?”

That communication comes back in in terms of working through that fear, about how you ideally would like to spend that practice time.  Again, maybe not all coaches are on board with this, so that’s when you want to look and see if maybe they would let your athlete come in a little early or stay a little late.  Maybe not late if you’re already in practice until 9:00, but maybe they can come in a little early.  If there’s an open gym maybe they can spend some time on the low beam or on the pit bar if it’s a skill that they don’t need a spot on.

Time Develops Mental Skills

Having this extra time becomes really important because fear is very mental.  We can help develop those mental skills and teach the skills, but physically, your athlete still needs to work on this skill.  Having the coach on board for that can be very important, even if the coach just simply understands that your athlete is dealing with a fear.  Maybe they’re not giving the extra time, maybe they’re not super onboard with the ladder idea, but they’ve  backed off your athlete a little bit.  That’s hugely important.

Like I said at the very beginning, these mental blocks and these fears are stressful for everybody, so as parents, I think we really we mean well with our questions and our checking in, but sometimes that can add a bit more pressure.  So at the end of a practice you know rather than saying, “Hey how’d your series go today?” or “How was your flyaway?”  Instead, maybe ask, “How was practice?  Did anything good happen today?”  Try to avoid specifically asking about the skill, and I’d say probably avoid talking about it before practice, too, because that just adds more pressure to the situation.

Recognizing the Mental Blocks

Mental blocks are so hard but they can definitely be worked through.  I’ve worked with hundreds if not thousands of athletes, gymnasts specifically, on mental blocks.  They really are that common.

Sometimes your athlete is struggling with a fear but they don’t always show it.  You don’t always see that they’re literally shaking in the inside and picturing themselves crashing and burning.  Maybe they’re saying they can’t do it but then they do this beautiful series and you’re like, “Oh she’s great!  She’s fixed!”

Well, she’s still freaking out on the inside.  That’s not what we want.  We don’t want your athlete to physically do the skills but mentally be feeling terrible.  She’s pretty tough, right?  She’s pretty mentally tough and that’s how she’s handling it.  She has all this fear but she can physically get herself to go for it.  We still want to be able to develop those mental skills so there’s not that internal mental struggle.

So as hard as mental blocks are, we can definitely help your athlete work through them.  We have great individual options.  We have great online options, so don’t hesitate to reach out.  You can schedule a free consultation with myself or any of our coaches to help figure out if one-on-one sessions would be right for your athlete.

We also have a great fear course in our Perform Happy community that you can start off with, too, but don’t forget the role that coaches and specifically private lessons can play.  Even with all the fantastic mental skills, your athlete physically needs to be working on the skill. too.

I hope this has been helpful.  Thank you so much and I will see you next time.

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