Coaching Through Fear

Today’s Topic: Coaching Through Fear

Welcome, everyone.  I am coach Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching.  I’m a high-performance coach and I help young athletes primarily build up their confidence so they can get through fear.  I help them find their flow and become who they want to be in their sport.

The question I’m going to answer today is from a gymnastics coach.  I was really happy to get this email from him because I give coaches a really hard time, because a lot of the time coaches are part of the problem, part of the reason that athletes are anxious, and part of the reason that athletes are afraid because they’ve poured all of their blind faith into these coaches and they’ve stopped listening to their intuition as a result.

Ignoring Your Intuition

They trust their coaches or they fear their coaches so much that they stop listening to their intuition, which makes their brains start to get frustrated.  Their brain is going, “This isn’t safe,” and their coach is saying, “Go!”  These kids have to chuck skills because otherwise they’re going to get in trouble and their dream is on the line.

This crazy culture of youth sports and specifically gymnastics, that if they don’t go for the skill, they’re going to get kicked out.  They’re not going to be picked for the team and they’re they’re going to lose what they’re working for.  They feel like they cannot listen to their brain, they can’t listen to their intuition, and they just have to do what the coach says.

With that being said, I got this email from a coach that felt really hopeful.  Bottom line, this coach sounds like he’s doing absolutely everything.  A+ coaching, yet the kid is still struggling with fear.

Dos and Dont’s

I’m going to give you some “dos and don’ts” as sport coaches and then parents, there’s going to be a bit in this for you.  Of course athletes you can benefit from this one as well, but this is really going to be all about the coach’s role in helping the athlete get through fear.

He says,

Q: I’m a coach.  I have a second-year, level nine athlete that completely shut down midseason.  She competed at the first meet of the season in December, did okay, but then started balking on skills.  I tried to just take all pressure off to grow out of the next meet, et cetera.  Things didn’t improve, just got worse actually and she couldn’t do anything on any event.  We scratched her from the rest of the season and focused on getting her skills back slowly.

In this situation he’s going, “Okay, we need to take the pressure off.”  He’s coming from this place of, “I want to help this kid.  Why don’t we just scale it back?”  For the athletes who are listening, if this happened to you, how would you feel?  If you are people-pleasing perfectionist gymnast who is working your butts off to please your coach, then coach says, “All right, you’re not competing in the next meet,” you might make up this story in your head that he doesn’t believe in you.  He doesn’t think you can do it.  You’re a disgrace to the team, et cetera.  You can take any situation, any series of facts, and makeup whatever story you want about it.

In this situation, she could’ve gone, “My coach cares about me and my coach wants to take the pressure off,” or she might’ve gone, “I’m terrible.  I’m losing all my skills.  My coach doesn’t believe in me.  He won’t even let me compete.  This is not fair.  I’m so mad.”

We don’t know, right?  We can’t read the athlete’s mind, but we can assume there’s probably something going on on her side and something going on on his side.  So I’m going to keep reading now.  He says,

The athlete was/is not on board with this plan.  I’ve been explaining that she needs to be patient and trust the process.  She says she just wants to do the skills.  I tell her I know that, but she needs to work your way back up.  Apparently, she’s been going home and crying for months.  The mom never told me until I reached out to her after she had a meltdown in the gym a few weeks ago.

He’s trying to help this kid.  He cares and she’s just mad.  She’s not on board.  She thinks that this is the completely wrong way to handle it.  So there they are.  He’s trying, she’s trying.  Everybody’s kind of mad, or at least it’s not working, even if coach is being endlessly patient.

Lack of Communication

Meanwhile, she’s not communicating because she’s going home in tears.  She’s not saying anything to the coach and she just wants to figure it out.  I hear this so often where kids are saying, “I’m going to figure it out.  I don’t need to talk to some lady about this.  I’m going to get through this.  Mom, leave me alone.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I don’t talk with my coach.”

Loss of Confidence

So then she’s in practice.  Again, I can’t read her mind, but based on all the kids I work with in this situation, she’s in there probably working so hard just to hold it together, just to force her brain to let her do something, anything, but her brain is maxed out.  She doesn’t know how to listen to it and she doesn’t know what’s fear and what’s just feedback.  She’s frustrated.  Her confidence is going down.

Then I’m going to keep going here in the email because then we’re going to layer mom into this situation.  He says,

We had two meetings.  One when things first started going downhill in December and one this past weekend.  I was shocked when the mom told me she’s crying every night because I always reach out to her and I thought she was on a good path.  I had to split my attention between her and the athletes competing and her mom says she was ignored for months.  Not true.  Mom says she was told to just do it… also not true.  ‘And now she is broken,’ mom says.  I don’t think this is true either.  The athlete’s complying but not cooperating or being very coachable but complaining she isn’t getting any coaching.  For example, she wasn’t vaulting last week.  I asked her to work on her steps and tried to spend some time with her on that.  She told me the steps were not the problem and she just needed to vault.  So when I tried to help her, she isn’t buying in.

I love the coach’s perspective on this.  So often I hear from the athlete who goes, “My coach is ignoring me, my coach is giving me the cold shoulder.  My coach is threatening to pull me out of a meet if I don’t go for the skill.  My coach won’t listen.  My coach won’t give me attention.  My coach only coaches the kids who are competing, who don’t have mental blocks.”

Different Perspectives

Can you see how this perspective can be coming from this athlete?  Meanwhile, the coach is trying his absolute best to give her what she needs, to split his attention, and to give her the patience and help her to trust the process.  But all he sees is an athlete that’s not complying and all she sees is a coach that’s being mean, rude, and ignoring her, yet we have these facts that are actually happening that are being interpreted in such different ways.

He continues to say,

Mom says she needs more coaching and more positivity, which is hard because both of them are not on board with the only plan that’s going to work –  going back to basics and relearning everything as she gets more confident.

Yes, coach, I shout this from the rooftops.  If your brain is having trouble, we have to forget the fact that your body can do these skills.  Yes, your body is capable, but your brain is in charge and your brain is not letting your body follow through, so what you have to do is let your brain take the lead.  If your brain will only allow you to do a very basic progression confidently and consistently, then that is where you start.

Back to Basics isn’t Punishment

So yes, coach, you are right.  That’s exactly what to do, but often the athlete feels like they’re being punished.  They want to just go do the skill, and they also don’t understand why they can’t just do the skill.  “I’ve done it before.  I competed it.  What’s the problem?”  The problem is, yes, your body can do it, but your brain needs help, and the coach wants to get your brain health, but you don’t want that kind of help, you want to just go and do the skill.  You want to get on with your life.  You want to just get the show on the road.  You don’t want to go back to basics, especially in the middle of season.

So mom says that she needs more coaching and positivity, kid is not on board, coaches train their best, then there’s this other part.  Mom is also telling her to quit every day.  Coach continues to say,

I feel like I’m a dog chasing his tail.  I want to help, but unless they help, nothing will change.  I can’t be telling her she can do it at the gym and then having her mom tell her she should quit at home.  We all need to be sending positive, positive messages.

This is such a classic situation, except for the coaches.  Coach knows exactly what to do, but it’s having a hard time getting buy in from the athlete.

So what do you do?  I responded to this coach by telling him it’s a confidence issue.  Mental blocks and fear are always about confidence.  The way you build confidence is there’s about five or six key ways that you do it, and that’s the trouble.  That’s the good news and the bad news.  There are a lot of ways to build confidence, but there’s a lot of things that can eat away at confidence at the same time.  So here are the things that will either add to confidence or take away from competence.

1. Positivity

The first thing is positivity from self or others.  If she’s out there going, “I believe in myself, I’m going to get this back.  I know I can do it,” and coach is going, “You got this girl,” and her teammates are going, “Hey, take your time.  We believe in you,” and mom’s going, “Don’t worry, we love you no matter what,” it’s going to boost her confidence.

But the coach can only do what he can do here.  He can only say, “I believe in you.  Let’s sit down.  Let’s make a plan.  I want you to get this.  This is not a punishment,” he can do all of that.  He can communicate, he can be positive, but the athlete is going, “I don’t think this is going to work.  Why is coach so mad at me and my mom’s going to make me quit?”

Meanwhile, mom is also trying to help by saying, “You know, I don’t want you to have to do this if you’re so miserable,” but the kid’s going, “I don’t want to be miserable.  I just want to do my skills.  Mom quit making me think about having to quit the thing I love.”

Although there’s a little bit of positivity, there’s a lot of negativity that’s taking the confidence down.  Instead of being motivational, mom is saying, “Well just do it or stop the sport,” and all that does to her brain is add another layer of threat.  “If I’m not perfect, if I don’t do it right, if I don’t chuck the skill, if I don’t do something that’s terrifying, I’m going to lose my dream,” which is not going to help because then the brain’s going to think, “Well, forget it all.  Let’s go to bed.  This is too much.”

2. Imagery

Conversely, the next thing is images.  Images in her mind, we call it imagery.  If she’s seeing any images in her mind of her failing, of her falling off, her not being successful, that’s going to be eating away at confidence.  If she’s seeing positive imagery, if she’s seeing things going well, if she’s seeing herself finishing the season, if she’s seeing herself start from a low beam and work up to hide me or start from just a run by on vault and work up to a great vault, if she’s seen that in her mind, that’s going to boost her confidence.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time athletes don’t realize that they have negative imagery going on in their minds.  They feel scared and they see it and they see themselves crashing.  That’s something to check in about.

3. Mood

If you’re in a good mood, you’re going to be more likely to get stuff done at practice.  If you just had a fight with your mom and you think your coach hates you and you’re stressed out, you’re going to start at a deficit for confidence.

If you had a great day, a really good workout on one event and now you’re heading to your tricky event, you’re loving on your friends, things are good, you’re going to be more confident.  All of these things factor into whether or not a kid’s going to be able to do their skills one day.

4. Strong Social/Relationship Factors

Team drama definitely ties into the coaching aspect.  If you don’t feel like you have a good relationship with your coach, your confidence is going to drop because that last little push out of your comfort zone when you’re getting a new skill, you’re right on the verge of getting back an old skill and it’s scary, but it’s also time.  There are always those moments (I call it “leap of faith” moments) where you go, “All right, my training is in place.  I am prepared to do this.  I don’t really want to do this because I’m scared, but I know I can follow through,” that’s when you need 100% trust in your coach.  Your coach is going to say, “Girl, you got this.  I’m here for you.  I wouldn’t set you up to do something you’re not safe doing.  I believe in you.  Take that leap!”

If you don’t trust your coach, it’s going to be that much harder to believe that you’re going to be okay.

5. Successful Progressions

On the other hand, failures will continue to bring you downhill.  If this stubborn, stubborn on the bad side determined on the good side, if this determined gymnast is like, I will not back down. I just want to evolve. I just want to do it. I’m going to try.  If she keeps trying and failing, her confidence is going down no matter how bad she wants it.  If her brain, what letter she’s just continuing to fail and then she’s going downhill confidence wise versus if she follows coach’s plan and it goes, “All right, fine.  I don’t want to, but I’m willing to go back to basics,” and then she’s successful and she’s successful and she’s hitting her drills right and she’s doing her progressions right, that is going to build confidence.

Those little failures along the way, they’re going to happen.  You’re going to always botch a try.  It’s not going to kill your confidence because you’ve ultimately been more successful than on successful.

6. Your Body Should Feel Good

Then the final little piece that creates this confidence puzzle is that your body feels good. That means you’re not too sore, you’re not in pain, you’ve had enough to eat and you’re well rested and hydrated.

That’s kind of a lot.  Your body and the way your body feels makes a huge difference to your confidence.  If you set out to do a vault and your legs hurt, your brain’s going to automatically power you down a little bit because it wants you to stay safe.


Coach, you can’t control all of that, right?  You can’t control what they put in their body.  You can’t control how much they sleep.  You can’t control what they say in their head, and you can’t control their mood.  Maybe you can contribute, put on some good music, you’ll be in a good mood but for the most part coaches, all you can do is communicate, and that seems like something that was really lacking in this situation.  A lot of gymnasts are not that great at communicating because they’re so used to just complying.  They just nod and smile and do what coach says.  They don’t want to make waves so they’re not good at saying what they actually need.  Then coach is just guessing, guessing, guessing and getting it wrong, and then the athletes mad.

Triangle of Success

So everybody has to be on the same page – parent, coach and athlete.  This little triangle of success has to be rooted in common goals and communication.  The common goals are what you all want.  You all want her to thrive, to do her skills, to be happy, healthy, and successful.

That’s what everybody wants and that’s where you have to come from, the place where your heart goes, “How can she be happy, healthy and successful.  That’s all I want.”  If she knows that’s what you want, then she can hopefully really want that for herself too.

Follow Up

After I emailed this coach back, he sent me an update and said he had an amazing conversation with her and she got on board.  She was willing to try, her effort was up, she was feeling better, and she was more successful.  He already knew what to do, it was just a matter of continuing to say, “I care and want this for you.  I believe in you.  I got you.  We’re going to get through this, and this is temporary.”

That’s a success story in itself.  Of course, she still has some work to do.  She’s going to have to back it up to the beginning and take her baby steps and work on other pieces of the puzzle. That’s where a lot of the mental training comes in.

Different Roles in Mental Training

Coach, you are the master of the progression.  That’s the part that I typically help with, but I when I work with an athlete one-on-one, we come up with the plan – this is what you can do, these are the baby steps, this is how you’re going to get to the finish line.  Then, of course, the coach is the one who implements that.

It’s kind of my wishlist for your coach and then your coach is ultimately in charge of your progressions.  Then what we do is we work on negative thinking.  We work on what to say to mom to let her know that the ultimatums are crushing you and they’re not helping.  Yes, she loves you and she’s empathizing with you and she doesn’t want you to hurt anymore, but the ultimatums about having to quit are making everything a million times worse.

We talk about, “What’s the conversation you have with mom?  What is the conversation to have with your coach?  What do you want?  What do you need to say to your teammates, what kind of support do you need?  See the images in your head – how can we switch that up?”

Addressing the Whole Athlete

Everybody has a different puzzle when it comes to confidence, but we address the whole thing.  We make sure that your body’s in good shape.  How do we get you in a good mood where you are thinking right, imagining right, and showing up and giving that good effort?  How do we get your heart involved so you can get excited again because it’s hard to get excited about going back in time, progression wise?

But to this coach, I am so happy, happy that there are people like you out there that care more about your kids, rather than saying, “Get it together and go chuck it out at meet,” you’re saying, “No, I want you to be safe and I want you to be happy and this is what we have to do.”

Taking a Step Back

For all of you athletes out there who are thinking, “I’m going to do it on my own,” see if you can relax back on that a little bit and make a commitment this week to talk to your coach and ask for help.  Say, “Coach, I really just want to chuck this but my brain is stopping me. Will you help me?  Will you work with me to get this?”  Then you can become yourself again, but it’s going to take communication and positivity.

If anybody needs support on that, we have an entire course on this in the PerformHappy community.  Check it out at  We have a waiting list going right now because we’re not taking new members.  Before we get too far into summer, I’m going to open up the doors and let in a few more people, so get on the waitlist if you’re interested.

We also have one-on-one coaching at  You can work with myself or any of the other fabulous Complete Performance coaches on the team.

Thank you so much for this question, coach (you know who you are).  Anybody who has any questions, please email me at Rebecca@perform  I’m here to support you in getting through fear.  I’ll see you next time.  Thanks for watching.

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