Today’s Topic: Talent – The Real Cause of Fear, Anxiety, and Mental Blocks
Hi everyone. I am coach Rebecca, here to talk about what talent has to do with mental blocks. I talk with people every single day. I talk with families who are struggling with, fear, anxiety, mental blocks. It’s a lot of young athletes who are in the 10 to 17 age range who are very physically capable. They are being watched by coaches, they are being praised for their potential, but they cannot pull it together. Either they get really stressed out under pressure and then they fall apart or they get really afraid in training and can’t do their skills, and then under pressure, they can pull it together.
If they’re anything like me when I was that age, it’s both. I would get completely nervous on the beam, in competition and in practice, and on floor. Anytime anybody was watching I would tense up, and so I had the magic combination of both. Most of the people I talk to are in that boat, and they also have another thing in common – they’re very talented. I hear this word, “talent”, multiple times a day. “She’s so talented. The coaches get really disappointed because she’s not living up to her potential.” I hear this over and over and over. I want to talk today about what talent actually has to do with that phenomenon.
Link Between Talent and Anxiety/Mental Blocks
Well, they’re sort of different phenomena, but of anxiety and of mental blocks and there’s a very direct link. If you’re one of those parents who’s thinking, “My kid is so talented, but I just don’t know why she won’t live up to her potential,” you’re absolutely in the right place. I’m going to give you some insight into that.
There are many coaches will look back on their career and go, “Oh, that kid was so talented. Why wasn’t she a success?” I was a coach. I coached gymnastics up to level nine. I was the beam coach because that’s the irony of life.
The Tale of Two Gymnasts
I want to tell you this tale of two gymnasts that will give you a little bit of insight into this myth of talent. With gymnast number one, we’ll call her our talented gymnast, she learned so fast and took corrections really fast. Everything she tried was high in the air with beautiful form and it was almost like she didn’t even have to try because she basically didn’t, she was just made for it. Her older sister was a gymnast. It was in their genes. I think her mom may have been a gymnast too. There was no reason why this kid shouldn’t have gone to college doing gymnastics. She was phenomenal.
And then there was her teammate. We loved her and adored her and she just had to work a little harder. She was always the last one done with conditioning and the lower levels always, but she did not give up. She was always the one getting a couple of extra corrections on form, extra corrections and extra feedback where this other girl is just got it and would move on up to the next skill.
These two different gymnast’s were the same age, same level, and had very different outcomes. Which one do you think ended up the collegiate gymnast? The talented gymnast developed a mental block on beam, of course, and I was her coach. This is one of my regrets as a coach was this particular girl because I looked at her and was like, “What is the problem? You can do it. It’s obvious that you can do it, so get up and do it,” and then she wouldn’t do it.
Meanwhile, the other girl is working away on low beam, trying them on high beam. They’re not pretty, but she’s working on them. And then this other girl who has this beautiful backhand spring on low beam will not go to the high beam. She won’t do it – won’t do it with mats, won’t do it without. We’re getting into this huge power struggle over it. Finally, she loses her joy for the sport and she quits.
Tortoise and the Hare
Meanwhile, the other girl, the tortoise, so to speak – we’ve got the hare who was blasting out in front of everybody and then hits a wall – then the tortoise who had to work every day of her life was like, “Yeah, it’s a back handspring on beam. It’s going to be hard, so I’ll work on it,” and she gets it. And this is the girl who got a scholarship to UCLA .
She was also the girl who wanted more. She always wanted more, she wanted more training days, she wanted a day to condition, she wanted to see if she could help out. She was always wanting more. She wanted to learn and to grow. It was never a conversation about, “Oh, this girl is going to be amazing,” it was more like, “We love her and we love coaching her and she works so hard, harder than anybody else. I wish everybody was like her,” but it wasn’t about talent. Then she goes to UCLA for gymnastics.
Pressure of Expectations
So that myth of talent is actually something that eats away at our kids. If you’re the type of parent who really praises outcomes and scores and really is excited when they win, and you’re saying, “Let’s go get some medals, I want to hear you jingling on the way home,” that’s sweet, and maybe they did win last time and maybe they won all last year, but now there’s this pressure. So if you believe that you are talented, and fortunately I was never one of those. I didn’t really particularly feel talented. I was too old and not strong enough and I wasn’t that good at vault, but I worked hard. I worked hard, but eventually, the mental blocks got the best of me anyway because I didn’t have any tools and I didn’t have any support. I mean, I did sort of, but people didn’t get what I was going through.
Talent vs. Adaptability
So back to talent, it wasn’t me, but for these kids who are extremely talented, they’re used to hearing, “Oh, this kid’s going to be amazing. Look out LSU, look out, she’s going to be great. You just keep up the good work and you’re going to be so good,” and then they have a hard day, where maybe they haven’t had a hard day in 10 years. Maybe they’re just cruising through and they don’t have hard days because their bodies are magical, strong, and powerful. Then they have a hard day, where gymnast B has been having hard days for eight years. She’s like, “It’s just another practice,” where gymnast A doesn’t know what’s going on. She thinks that she might actually have peaked. She might feel like she’s run out of greatness.
There’s a psychologist by the name of Carol Dweck who’s a professor at Stanford, and she wrote a book called Mindset where she talks about two different types of mindsets. Today, I’m going to talk about three because I’m going to add my own at the end.
There are two types of mindset as far as she’s concerned – fixed mindset and growth mindset. For the talented kid, when they screw up, when they’re having a bad day, they go into this type of thinking – “I suck, I’m terrible. I will never get this. What if I don’t get this? What if I let my coaches down? They’re going to be mad at me. I’m scared. I shouldn’t be scared. I should just do it anyway. What if I peaked my talent is running out. I don’t want to play this game if I’m going to lose. I don’t want people to see that I’m not as talented as they thought I was. I want to be the star in my coach’s eyes. What if I’m not? This is horrible.”
That’s what’s happening in the mind of a kid who hasn’t had to struggle before and then all of a sudden they’re thinking they’re not talented and they have to do whatever they can do to prove that they are talented. This is the fixed mindset. That’s this feeling that talent is finite, intelligence is finite, meaning you only get so much, you get this many ounces of talent and then once you’ve used it all up, you’re done. You can not go any farther.
Now somebody with a growth mindset, that’s something you earn. You just keep trying and you get better. That’s how you build talent. Somebody who is one of those hard workers who doesn’t rely on talent, maybe they’ve got it too, but they have this mindset of, “Hey everybody, it’s about work. It’s not about just coasting. Nobody gets a free ticket to college.” That’s what a hard worker or somebody with a growth mindset would think when they’re struggling. They want it so they say, “I’m going to keep trying. I’m going to keep getting better. I am getting better.” They pay attention to their progress, they put in the effort, they value the effort and they think, “Well, what if this is the good one? What if this is the one I make. I think my coaches believe in me, that’s why they pushed me.”
If they need help, they honor that and they ask for help. They talk to their coaches and then they take the feedback as constructive and useful and then they apply it, instead of thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t want any criticism.” I’ve been in that place where criticism was just really painful because I didn’t want anyone to notice I wasn’t amazing because that’s kind of what I was riding on. I hoped everyone would think I’m amazing, and if not, I didn’t know what to do with myself.
If you’re okay no matter what and you need help, you ask for help, and then you received the criticism with grace and then you move forward going, “I’m going to get there.” That’s the difference between the person who has been fed this message of talent and this person who’s been fed the message of effort and progress.
The “Good” Athlete vs. the “Happy” Athlete
I talk to people all the time. I have a little four-year-old, so I talk to a lot of parents with kids that are just starting into sports, friends, relatives, and they ask me what I do to set my kid up for success in sports?
The questions that come, they run the gamut of “How do I get my kid to be amazing in sports?” to “How do I get my kid to be happy?” So, of course, my responses are always around how to have a happy kid, which I know leads to more success in sport, less burnout, and less likelihood to quit at a place where you could be really excelling. Here’s what I tell them. I tell them, “You can do anything to set your kid up for success and avoid these anxieties and these mental blocks, or at least get them through them. It’s praising progress and effort and removing the emphasis off of the outcome.” If you can do that, everybody can take a breath and go, “All right kid, you’re not there yet. Let’s get to work. I believe in you. Look, you just made some progress,” versus the perfectionist who has been trained to think nothing but perfection counts, nothing but amazing counts. The hard worker goes, “Every step counts, every step counts. Here’s another step. There’s step.” The tortoise just keeps moving, where the hare hits a wall and then potentially gives up.
The Weight of Expectations
So there’s another thought that I want to give you, which is the weight of expectations. Let’s say you’ve had a phenomenal season, and I have seen so many kids who have had phenomenal seasons for maybe two, three, four years and then they fall apart. They fall apart completely. These little sweetie-pies who cannot hold it together in competition. They’re great in practice and they get to competition and they are a completely different person. What happens is that they feel like they have to continue to demonstrate that they’re talented or else there’s no value in failure.
Failure is the worst possible thing, so they’re like, “I cannot fail because that might mean I’m not talented. That might mean my talent has run out so I have to succeed or else,” and then maybe they don’t succeed, then they have this downward spiral of a season because they’re under this massive pressure that may feel like they have to do well or their identity is on the line.
The other way to look at it, which I love to do this exercise with athletes in that age range, is to will imagine a situation where there was a ton of pressure. Imagine that situation – the lead-up, who you were talking to, how it was going, what the thoughts were, what all the pressure was, the feeling like you had to be a certain way. They’ll imagine it and then they’ll imagine themselves falling apart, saying, “It’s not perfect. Oh my gosh, everybody’s disappointed.”
We’ll take that situation and we will re-experience it from a place of challenge. Whether these kids are the talent variety or the hardworking variety or a combo, they are competitive, which is good. I am super competitive. I like to play board games that I will win. I love to play games. I like to play against somebody who is also very good at games because it’s way more fun to win against somebody who’s good than against somebody not so good. I like a challenge. I’d rather get an A+ in a hard class than an A+ an easy class. That’s how I am. It doesn’t count as much if the opposition isn’t as capable.
So I like a challenge, and I imagine that you or maybe your athlete also likes a challenge. So what if instead of focusing on the pressure, you focused on the challenge and you recreate that situation. Go back to that pressure-filled situation and imagine that it is a challenge. Go into it and you’re thinking, “What if I did well? That would be cool. Oh look that person’s here. Okay good. This is going to be a good one. Is this going to be a big challenge?”
Then I’ll have these athletes imagine going back through the setup, approaching it like a challenge and then going through warm-up, approaching it like a challenge and going through competition. Almost inevitably, when they open their eyes they’re like, “Oh, that was awesome,” and they have these big smiles and they’re like, “I did great,” and nothing changed. Their skill level didn’t change, the venue didn’t change, the “pressure” didn’t change, but they changed their perspective.
When you’re looking for a challenge in practice, you’re not trying to win necessarily. Yes, winning is great, but you’re trying to grow, you’re trying to get better, and that is the mindset that you have to have. I tend to remove the word talent altogether and just say, “You might have a really capable body,” which is sometimes confusing to coaches when you’re new or up against a mental block because the coaches ask, “What’s wrong? Just do it,” when your body could do it… if you could just switch your brain off, but your brain needs to be prepared just like your body, and when it is, then you can get into that growth mindset and you can get into the little by little building on what you’ve got.
You start where you are and you build from there. That’s exactly how I take athletes through the process of overcoming fear, getting through anxiety, building confidence – starting where you are and building from there and not comparing yourself to anybody in any negative way. Because if you are relying on talent than other people’s success is actually a threat, versus if you’re relying on people who are not so talented or they’re the hard workers, they look at other people’s success and they get inspired.
So just notice – where are you currently parents? A lot of parents fall into the fixed mindset just by default. We were parented that way. “Go get those medals, kiddo. It shouldn’t be ‘everyone gets a medal’, everyone’s got to earn it. If you don’t win, well, we’re not bringing you home.” Those jokes, the things that you say, “Hey, did you go win? Knock them dead!” You have to be careful because what we really want to encourage is that effort and the progress. If you can do that for your kid, you’re doing them a big favor.
The Third Mindset
I’ll close out with my take on the ideal mindset, which I call the PerformHappy mindset. PerformHappy is my community and I call it this because if you’re not happy, you can’t be performing at your best. This is the perform happy mindset -ask yourself if you have these things – are you hungry to learn and grow as an athlete and a human, or are you focused on the silver lining or are you dwelling on the problem? Are you constantly believing that it is possible or are you doubting yourself all along? Are you bouncing back every time you fall down? Are you striving for excellence but not getting weighed down by perfectionism and that need to have perfect or best? Are you staying in the moment? Not Getting caught up in the past failures or future fears, but just being present for your training, for your competition. Then when you wonder off to the past or the future, do you pull it right back? Do you embrace and learn from mistakes?
For all of you who are in that perfectionism category, there’s usually a fear of failure element. Can you look at failure and go, “Okay, stepping stone, what did I learn? What’s next?” You welcome that challenge. You don’t think about the pressure, you just think, “Bring on the challenge,” and then you also welcome feedback. You give yourself feedback, you reflect objectively on how you’ve been doing, where there’s room for improvement and you ask others for that same feedback without feeling like you’re going to be crushed by it.
So can you be successful without talent? I don’t know how you decide, but I believe so. I believe that you can build the talent, that hard work and that energy in that heart is what it takes to build you into a phenomenal athlete.
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me on the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page or Instagram. We have lots of fun things going on on our Instagram page. It’s @complete_performance. I think you know where to find me and I’ll be back again soon. Thanks for watching or listening.