Four Causes of Mental Walls While Performing| Live Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Four Causes of Mental Walls While Performing

Hello everyone.  I’m Rebecca Smith, the founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching, here to talk about four causes of mental walls while performing.  Every week I go live and answer a question from either a member or somebody on my email list who will send me a question.

Today’s question is from a swimmer, and this is a good one for any athlete.  Endurance sport athletes or anybody who exercises, really anybody who does conditioning or difficult training sets, this one is for you.

Our swimmer says,

Q:  One problem I have is a constant mental wall I hit.  As soon as the set becomes difficult, I just stop at the wall and wait and it drives me crazy because I constantly hear the saying, ‘You need to be a little uncomfortable to become comfortable.’  I want to get past this mental block so I’m able to improve and endurance during hard sets.  Any advice?

A: What Causes Mental Walls

So here is my take on this one.  There are four likely things that are causing this to happen – burnout, frustration, self-doubt, and negativity.  I’m going to go through each of those potential causes and give you some suggestions on how to make this go away, so to speak.

1. Burnout

The first one that comes to mind when this is starting to happen is burnout.  If you are trying to get stronger, faster, better, here’s the recipe: stress + recovery = adaptation.  This means, for example, if you are conditioning your muscles, you’re trying to get stronger.  If you stress them, you create little tears in them, then you give the downtime so that they can recover and then they adapt bigger and stronger.

This is the same way that it works with your mental strength.  You stress, you get yourself pushed to your limit, then you have the downtime to digest everything that’s just happened, and then you come back stronger.  Now you’ve had this experience.  I was just talking to somebody who had the worst month that followed the worst year of her career.  She’s a skater and one of the grittiest people I’ve ever met.  She’s the kind of girl who says, “Life, bring it on.  I can handle it.”  That’s what happens, you come up against stress, then you have downtime, and then you adapt.


But if you don’t have the recovery time, that leads to burnout.  If you are just tearing your muscles up and they’re never getting a chance to recover, then you’re just creating stress, stress, stress, which creates overtraining.

In a physical sense, and also in a mental sense, if you have so much stress in your mind that you can’t ever recover, you don’t have enough time to let it all digest, it’s going to lead to mental burnout, which is going to lead to a lack of mental toughness.

If you are trying to get better physically and mentally, you want to have progressive amounts of overload, so little amounts of overload where you’re pushing a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time.  Otherwise, if you’re just maxing out your ability to cope, then you’re pretty much just going to feel, “I’m not good enough.  I can’t do this.  What’s the point?”


Other stressors contribute to feeling over-taxed and over-trained.  Stressors can come from family, school, from not enough food, not enough sleep, relationships, drama, frenemies, you name it.  Anything that can cause stress emotionally can also deplete your mental toughness.  If you are mentally fatigued, it’s going to make it so that your physical body can’t do as much.

If you are heading to a competition, you don’t want your parents to talk about school, or about drama, you don’t want to talk about things that stress you out on the way to practice.  Any of that is going to set you out a deficit to where you’re more likely to have the burnout stop you from doing the hard sets.

Solution for Burnout

If you think it’s burnout that’s causing your wall, reduce the controllable stressors.  You can’t control the weather, the judging, or the clock, but there are plenty of things that you can control.

If you say to people, “I don’t want to talk about that right now,” or to yourself, “I’m going to take this route to the pool because I don’t want to have to walk by that person.”  Everything you can control, let that be what you focus on and then prioritize your rest and recovery, and that means mentally, too. Make sure that you’re not just “go, go, go more, more, more”.  There has to be a few hours a week where you just sit in bed and watch Netflix or YouTube.  Do Nothing.  Do Mindless entertainment.  I love to watch the bachelor (guilty pleasure) because it’s fairly useless, I don’t have to think, and I don’t have to plan.  I can just say, “Wow, these people are so dumb,” but it’s a mental break.

2. Frustration

The second cause could be frustration.  What happens here is if you are setting the bar too high, (and I don’t want to say you shouldn’t set the bar high), but if you’re setting the bar too high, then you get in this cycle of failure, failure, failure, especially if you’re dealing with a mental block.  For gymnasts or skaters who are dealing with a fear, and you just keep failing and failing and failing, even though you are making progress, but not as fast as you like, that’s going to start to build this frustration.  If you are a swimmer and you are your fast, but not as fast as your teammates, you just feel like you’re failing and failing and failing and coming in last.

Break It Down

Here is what I recommend.  First of all, break it down.  Let’s say you have 50 hundreds to do.  If you start out saying, “50!  I’m only on number one.  Oh my gosh, this is so hard.  This is going to be awful,” then it’s going to be hard and awful.  If you think of it as 16, you go and you do 16, then it’s, “All right, now do nine,” and then you do nine, and all of the sudden, you’re halfway there!  Then you do 10 more, and you realize, “I only have 15 left.  That’s less than my first set.”

You’ve broken it down into these little chunks that are doable and that’s what helps you feel, “I could do one, I could do one more, I can do 10 more, 50, whoah… too much.”  But you just break it down mentally and that can make it feel like you can just get through the next one.

If you’re a marathon runner, you can say, “Just get to that tree.  Just get through this mile,” instead of thinking, “Oh my gosh, I still have 13 more to go.”


Something I like to talk about a lot is flow, the theory of flow, which is where everything clicks in.  It’s only in the toughest of tough moments and sets that this happens.  If you are not familiar with flow, you should get familiar with flow.  It’s the best thing ever.  In order to get into flow, you have to have the perfect balance of challenge and skill level.  If your challenge is way up high and your skill level is way down low, you’re going to be disappointed in yourself, you’re going to be frustrated, and you’re probably going to give up and be apathetic.

If your challenge level is down and your skill levels are way up, you’re going to be bored.  You’re not really going to try, and you’re not going to click into some magical execution.  You’re just going to think, “Whatever. Who Cares?  Nobody’s judging me on this and I’m too good for this.”  But if your challenge level is just a hair above your skill level, that’s when the magic happens.

Last week I was talking with a gymnast who had just been giving up because everything her coach gave her was too hard.  It was too hard for her to fathom because she was stressed about school, stressed about relationships, and stressed about family.  When her coach gave her a set, or an assignment that all of her teammates could handle easily, for her, it was too much.  “I can’t do it.  I give up.”

Set Your Own Goals

I said to her, “Okay, coach gives you this goal, you can come up with your own.  If that’s not your goal, fine.  You set one that you that is going to be in line with your current ability for challenge and then go from there.”   For Grace, who asked this question, if your coach is saying, “You have to do a hundred hundreds on the minute,” or something insane, you go, “I’m going to do 25 at 90%, 25 at 80%, then I’m going to do 25 at 70%, and then I’m going to do 25 at 60%.”

You figure out what’s a challenge for you that you can get excited about and then you go do that.  That’s going to give you the opportunity for flow.  If the set that you’re coach set out for you is not the right balance of challenge and skill, then that’s not the right one that’s going to get you into flow.

3. Self-Doubt

The next cause is self-doubt.  I love imagery for this.  There’s a bunch of stuff on the blog,  If you’re on Instagram, you can go through the link in the bio, and it’ll teach you all about imagery.  Imagery is amazing.  Coach Taryn, our figure skating specialist, did an amazing talk on imagery that you can watch or read here.  If you want more information about that, that can get rid of self-doubt.

Comparing you to you instead of you to what your coach expects of you, or instead of comparing you to what you should be should or what your coach thinks you should be.  It’s just you to you.  You go swim your best race, you don’t swim somebody else’s best race.

There was a study where cyclists were supposed to pedal until they could not pedal anymore.  They had all these cyclists go and pedal until they couldn’t pedal anymore, and then they did a biopsy on their legs to see if they actually had energy left that could be spent on it.  It was found that each of these people could go an average of seven minutes farther than they went.  This means that your brain gives up before your body, almost always.  So knowing that, how do we get your brain on board for one of these big challenges?  It’s self-talk.

4. Negativity

Self -talk is the biggest, simplest thing that you can do to step away from negativty and self-doubt.  A great tool is to do an “if, then”.   An example would be, “If I start to get tired, then I will use this mantra.  If I start to get tired, then I will focus on only the next one.  If I start to get tired, this, if I get negative that.”

When I was pregnant, I was doing pilates, and every time I’d go I’d think, “Oh, I’m getting fat and I’m getting weak,” which does not actually make you better at pilates, I found out.  Instead of thinking “I’m fat and weak” the whole time, I was trying to do it.  I started to go, “I am healthy and strong, healthy and strong, healthy and strong,” and that gave me more power.

If you can get yourself to come up with a mantra and go, “Once they start to hit the wall, I’m going to go another hundred and I’m going to say, ‘I’m healthy and strong’, or I’m going to say, ‘Pull, pull, pull!’  Or I’m going to think about the bubbles leaving my nose as I breathe.”  Something like that where you have a plan is enough to get you through it.

So there’s my little song and dance today on breaking through that wall.

Final Question

We have another quick question:  What is something I could do to get rid of my fear of stunting in cheer?  I’m scared that I’m going to get the wrong grip on my flyer’s foot.

Imagery!  Another one.  Imagine it going well!  I’m guessing that you’re imagining it going wrong just because it’s such a specific fear that you have.  I’m guessing that you’re assuming you’re going to get the wrong grip and you’re kind of seeing that in your head, but that’s something that you can imagine going right.

Same thing with our swimmer.  Imagine yourself breaking through the wall.  Imagine you’re going full throttle, that you were tired and you were falling apart, and then you just throttled it up and made it happen.  If you’re imagining that regularly, your brain’s going to believe it’s true and your brain’s going to do everything that it can to make that true.

Overcoming Fear Course

I also have a whole course on overcoming fear in the PerformHappy Community.  If anybody’s looking for more assisted help, I’m actually in the forums guiding you through all of my live trainings.  I would love to have you there.  If you want to check out our coaching options, you can go to and grab a free 20-minute consultation call with me or any of the coaches.

Thanks for joining me and I’ll see you next week.

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