Today’s Topic: How to Rewire Your Brain for Confidence & Success
Hi everyone! My name is Rebecca Smith and I am the founder and Director of Complete Performance Coaching. I am a high-performance coach specializing in helping athletes age eight to 18 overcome fear, build confidence, and increase overall wellbeing and success in sport and life.
I have a team of fabulous high performance coaches who also specialize in this age group and beyond. Primarily we do a lot of work with aesthetic sports (gymnasts, figure skaters, dancers) but we also have experts on the team who work with team sports and adults.
Please feel free to take a look at our scheduling page and see if there’s somebody you want to try a free consultation with.
Let’s Talk about the Brain
Today I’m going to talk about the brain. When I was in graduate school, the class that I hated the most was neuropsychology. I hated this class. It felt like it had 500 textbooks that were all four inches thick. They all had these crazy big words that I didn’t understand and I would think to myself, “Oh my gosh, why do I have to take this class? This is insane. I just want to work with the kids. I don’t really care about all these things and the brain and these pictures. How am I going to keep this all straight?”
I hated this class. It was the hardest class I’d ever taken in my life. Now cut to me years later doing the work that I do – it’s absolutely the most useful class I took in graduate school because it taught me why, structurally why, fear behaves like it does, why stress behaves like it does, why certain things happen.
Rewire Your Brain
I am going to give you the teensiest little bit of knowledge that I took from that class and from my experience working with fear. I’m going to teach you how to actually change your brain so that success becomes a habit.
Please bear with me if I use big words. I’m going to try to make it make sense. This is what I needed when I was in school. I’m going to try to make it simple so that you can understand.
When will I see results?
I’m going to answer a question that I received that got me down this brain plasticity rabbit hole. I get this question a lot. A gymnast mom says,
Q: I have a 12 year old, seventh grade gymnast struggling a bit. How long after starting Perform Happy do you typically see results?
So for those of you who are new to us, PerformHappy is a community and online training center that has courses on fear, building confidence, etc. So for somebody struggling with fear, the question is how long is it going to take?
Let’s say you sign up for this thing and start doing the online courses. How long does it take? I have people who I am doing a consultation with and they would say, “Great, okay, we get it. You understand fear, you’ve been through it personally… how long is it going to take?”
I give an answer that probably isn’t that helpful, but it’s honest. Here it is – it varies. It varies on a lot of factors.
I have a short list of factors. Number one, you have to want it. If you don’t want to get over the fear, you are not going to get over it because you have to work for it. Number two, you have to get out of your comfort zone. If you’re not willing to be uncomfortable, you cannot get through fear. No matter how much I tell you how to do it, you have to take suggestions. That’s you saying, “I don’t want to do that, but I trust Rebecca so I’m going to do it.” You have to take suggestions and you have to take action. If you don’t do anything, you’re not going to get results.
You have to speak up for yourself. Some of you are a little afraid of talking to coaches. This makes sense – coaches can be super scary. I really hope from the bottom of my heart that USA Gymnastics and all their turmoil, this whole phase that we’re in with gymnastics is going to change the culture of gymnastics so kids do not have to be afraid to talk to their coaches. I think that’s absolutely insane.
Experience Changes the Brain
It depends on how long the mental block or fear has been in place because, going back to the brain, experience changes the brain. For example, if you have an injury, you get injured while tumbling, your brain is going to file that away, physically change, and go tumbling equals injury.
Negative experiences affect the brain a lot more powerfully than positive ones. You might have this really great day, but then you are in a car accident. Which experience is your brain going to remember more? The one that’s going to potentially keep you safe. Any negative emotional experiences, any negative physical experiences, your brain is going to go, “Whoa, lock that in.”
And then there are neurons, brain cells that have these little offshoots. They kind of look like a tree. You have roots and then you have your trunk, and then the top of the tree is this big circle. That’s your neuron. It has these little tentacles that come off the bottom and attach to other ones. When you have an experience, your brain cells are going to go and send a little message to the next one, then the next one, and the next one. It’s this little chain reaction that then starts to become automated.
Your Brain will Automate
As you learn your skills, your brain starts to automate. I always bring it back to kip. All gymnasts learn a kip. There are all these steps you have to do. You have to jump off the board, grab the bar, swing out, get your feet in, then pull your hips up to the bar. It’s like you’re kicking and squeezing, and there are so many different things you have to do just to get your body up on the bar and to a support.
But once you’ve done it for years and years, all you have to say is “kip” and all your little neurons fire, and you’re up on the bar. You didn’t have to think about it or do anything. You don’t have to think, “Squeeze this muscle, point this toe, do that.” You just think “kip” and it happens.
Locking in Thought Patterns
That’s how you do skills, but it’s also how you lock in these negative thought patterns. For example, you might walk by a window and see a reflection of yourself and think, “Oh, I’m so fat.” Hello, speaking from experience here. There are certain things that most of you adolescent girls just start to do. You think, “Oh, there’s my flaw,” and you just start to connect seeing yourself saying something negative.
It might also be seeing a certain coach and immediately thinking, “He hates me. I’m awful. Why am I even here?” It’s like your brain creates this little pattern, and it’s not just in your mind, it’s in the actual makeup of your brain. The matter of your brain changes and locks in these patterns.
Unlocking Negative Patterns
Here’s the good news – you can unlock the negative patterns and put new patterns in place. There are three ways to do that, and those three ways are basically what we do at Complete Performance Coaching. There are ways that you can do on your own as well.
Plasticity is the ability for your brain to change along with experience and these other two things. Let’s say that you have these unhelpful emotional reactions like you burst into tears every time you talk to an authority figure. I had that fun one at one point in time because of this whole culture of gymnastics. I went to this teacher in college and I just burst into tears because that’s the reaction that had been created in my mind. Or fears, you get up on a beam and you just start to shake. I had that one too. These unhelpful reactions need to get unwired and replaced with new ones.
Here are some good examples. I worked with a couple of girls who were having this punitive coaching. Anytime they didn’t do their skill that they were afraid of, because their brain wasn’t letting them because it didn’t feel safe, their coach would make them climb the rope. So they’re trying to do the scale, trying to force it, and their brain won’t let them. Coach makes them climb the rope and they’re climbing the rope thinking, “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this. I should quit. This is awful, and my gosh, I hate my coach. Why can’t I just do it?”
They’re basically climbing the rope and having a negative affirmation session. They’re stewing and they’re mad at themselves. So I said, “Okay, why don’t you have a gratitude rope climb?” I know some of my stuff is super hokey, but it works. One of the girls said she’d try it. For every hand on the rope, she would say, “I’m grateful for my dog, I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful that I’m going to be able to have dinner tonight. Also, I’m grateful for the leotard that fits me and I love it. I’m grateful.” She would just climb up the rope thinking about things she was grateful for.
Sometimes it was leg lifts. Every time her legs went up to the bar, she would say, “I’m grateful for my teammates. I’m grateful for my math teacher.” Whatever came to her, there was something to be grateful for. Even if it’s something simple like, “I’m grateful I have thumbs. I’m grateful there’s a pillow on my bed.”
She got in this habit of doing the gratitude conditioning as I had done. At one point, I had a roommate who used to always park in my spot. I’d have to walk this really long driveway up to the house. I’d be furious and say, “Oh, I hate that guy. I can’t believe he never thinks. Why would he park in that spot?” Blah, blah, blah.
So I started doing the gratitude walk, and then I started to have this association with every time I got to park at the bottom of the driveway, with getting to do a gratitude walk. This is so good. I would go, “I’m grateful,” and my brain started to wire that anytime I drove past the bottom of the driveway, I would have a gratitude moment. My shoulders would relax and I’d feel a little bit better. That’s the brain starting to take on a new habit.
So this girl no longer feared the punishment that her coach would give her because she knew it was a chance for her to relax into it and feel a little bit better. You can wire the negative stuff by having coaches who yell and telling yourself negative things or you can wire the positive stuff. So here are the three ways to rewire your brain.
Number one is experience. What we do, especially with the overcoming fear course, is we come up with a plan to start having success be the way of the future. All you’re allowed to do is succeed because we’re used to failing. A lot of us are perfectionists and we’re used to failing, so we set up ways that you can have little wins, little successes so that you start to have this good feeling again about doing these skills that that feels scary.
Then it’s just looking at it in a different way. We’re learning the habit of focusing on progress rather than focusing on failure. Those experiences, as they build, start to have new little effects of your brain cells working together and going, “Oh, when I go to the beam, I try this and then I get better. When I go to bars I try this and I get better. When I’m with this coach I need to do this to take care of myself and I can be successful.” Once that is the truth, the new belief, then it starts to build more rapidly.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Number two is cognitive behavioral therapy. This is one of the foundations of my work in one-on-one coaching and a lot of the coaches on my team as well. We look at what your beliefs are that are not serving you. For example, “I’m broken. I can’t do it. I’ll never be able to do this skill.” If that’s what you believe, then we’ll take a look at it. The first thing I almost always ask when I’m on a consultation with people who are struggling with fear is, “Have you ever lost a skill before and gotten it back?”
Almost invariably the answer is yes, unless they’re very young and this is the first time, in which case it’s going to be a slam dunk because their brain has not had a chance to wire the fear in yet. We’re gonna knock this out quick! But if they have, which most people have said, “Oh yeah, well I was scared of my cartwheel and level five or level four, and then I worked through it and my coach helped me and then I got over it.”
So then I respond with, “Oh, so you have already had an experience of success on this.” So just that little shift that they make by going, “Oh gosh, I didn’t even think of it that way because that was an easier skill.” It’s the same thing. You’re afraid. You build that confidence through positive experiences and then you feel better. Then you have this skill that you can do.
So that’s just one example of how that one on one work can help you identify what are the beliefs that are not working for you and how do we challenge them actively and make new ones come in and replace them.
Then the third way to rewire your brain is mindfulness. Mindfulness training and mindfulness practice have been proven to change the way your brain is set up. We have a ton of meditations in the PerformHappy community that is available to help get that process going.
I’m going to give you three quick case studies before I wrap up so you can get an example of how long it takes and what this rewiring of the brain looks like in three different situations. Two were successful and one was not.
Case Study 1
I’m going to change some details and names because I value my client’s confidentiality. This first one I’m going to call Charlotte. She was a gymnast, she’s 13, level eight, and she was crippled by fear. Charlotte spent two years struggling, with punitive coaching, someone yelling at her, punishing her, and kicking her out.
She got to this point where she could basically not do any skills anymore. She was horribly nervous, anxious, but she loved gymnastics. Her mom would say, “Why are we doing this? Can you just quit? Oh my gosh. Can we just be over this phase of our lives called gymnastics that is so stressful?” But this girl wanted it.
Slow Progress is Still Progress
So we started working together and she started off making really slow progress. She started in the community doing her own work. She was studying along through the overcoming fear course, communicating with me in the forums, and then we started doing some one-on-one sessions. Super slow progress. She was really negative, really down on herself, and she really didn’t believe in herself, but she loved her sport so she stuck with it.
Over the past year she had slow, slow progress, which got a little faster and a little faster, to the point where today or I think maybe two weeks ago when I talked with her, she had every single goal skill. Charlotte was getting ready to compete for level eight. She had every skill she had lost and was building up to upgrades and her coach was stepping away. She was needing fewer spots, less warm up, and she was inspiring the kids on her team. Charlotte was this completely different person.
So that took a year. When people ask, “We have a meet on Friday, can you help us with the fear?” I’ll respond, “Let’s talk about what’s realistic.”
Charlotte had a two-year, really sad experience, where she was emotionally abused by her coach. She had all these memories and beliefs she had to work through, but she did it.
Case Study 2
The next one I’m going to call Sophie, a nine year old cheerleader. She came in having had lost skills, got them back, lost them, got them back, lost them, got them back. So we came up with a plan. Sophie was supposed to spend eight weeks kind of working through this plan to rebuild confidence. She worked through it in two weeks and she was on fire! She was so happy she was doing her skills. Sophie gave herself two weeks to build new neurons in her brain around these skills that were scary.
And then she had a fall. She bailed out because the confidence wasn’t strong, her foundation wasn’t strong and she fell. This happens when you’re forcing your brain to do something it doesn’t want to do; you bail out and you balk, and your confidence goes through the floor.
So that’s what happened to her. I said, “There’s a reason why it takes eight weeks or more. Even though you’re young and young kids can really work through things more quickly, it’s actually better to make sure that you’re challenging those thoughts, getting more experiences under your belt before you start upping the difficulty level.” She wasn’t doing any mindfulness.
Charlotte, who I mentioned before, does the meditations in the car on the way to practice. Every single practice day, she’s being mindful. She works with me, we do the CBT, and we work through the behavioral stuff to make sure that her thoughts are shifting actively. She has a plan and she sets goals.
This other girl just was kind of chucking stuff and so she technically got the goal, but she didn’t change her brain, so it reverted right back to where it was.
Case Study 3
The third example I’ll call McKenna, who was actually the little sister of Charlotte. Charlotte had this really hard experience with this previous coach, and then her little sister didn’t really have that same experience and didn’t really struggle with fear, so she didn’t really do much of the online training. Then she got afraid of the beam. She said, “Oh my gosh, Charlotte, let me get in and do your PerformHappy stuff so that I can get over this fear.”
So she did. She had her sister as an example and for accountability. They started working together and she got over her fear in just a couple of months, and in a lasting way with confidence. McKenna did a few sessions with one of the other coaches and she’s really been able to dive right in because she didn’t have the backlog of negativity that her older sister had. She also gave it enough time to really get in and change her brain and work on the beliefs she was having that weren’t serving her. She also meditates with her sister in the car on the way to practice.
So those are three quick examples of how this process works and how you can change your brain in any way. If you’re a crier and you don’t want to be, if you get angry and you don’t want to be, those are things that you can address.
That final mindfulness piece, I have been scheming something to this effect for a long time because I struggle with meditation. I know the research, I know the case studies, and I know that meditation is so powerful. It’s physically powerful for your brain, spiritually powerful, and emotionally powerful. It is so important.
In January I’m going to run a mindfulness challenge. It’s going to be a 30-day mindfulness challenge on Instagram. If you don’t follow us on Instagram, make sure you add us now. We are @complete_performance on Instagram.
Follow us on Instagram and I’m going to be in the stories doing a new mindfulness challenge every single day in January so we can all be accountable to start using that valuable tool.
All right, everyone, please send me your questions to Rebecca@performhappy.com.
Thanks for joining me. I’ll see you again soon.