Is Your Athlete Scared of Getting Scared?

Is Your Athlete Scared of Getting Scared?

Hi everybody.  I’m coach Rebecca Smith.  Welcome to Q & A with Coach Rebecca.  I’m happy to have you here.  Earlier this week, one of our coaches, Coach Marissa, reached out in our Facebook group where the Complete Performance Coaches have conversations every week.  Marissa wanted to know:

Q: What have your athletes been struggling with as they’re entering back into their sport and their practice?

After discussing, a few of us found a theme amongst the athletes we were working with – they have been working on their mental training, they have been doing their zoom workouts, doing their conditioning.  A lot of them are even back in practice and they’re feeling confident, but they have this nagging worry that they’re going to lose their confidence.  They’re not currently scared, but they’re scared that they’re going to get scared.  I call this the fear cycle where you’re actually fine, but then you’re afraid of getting afraid, which makes you tense, which makes you afraid, and then it all sort of spirals from there.

Hot Seat Story

Today, I want to talk to any athletes out there or any families who have athletes out there who are having that little insecurity where things are going okay now, now, but are thinking “what if”?  In the PerformHappy community, our membership online community for mental training, we have live trainings every week.  I lead one on Wednesday nights called the “hot-seat” training.  I had an athlete on the hot seat (for confidentiality I’m going to change a little bit about her story) and she had this exact question.  I’m going to tell you how I answered it for her.

Let’s call her Mia.  Mia is a 12-year-old, level six gymnast.  She has a mental block with tumbling that she’s currently working through.  This was her question.  She asked,

Q: My gym is opening tomorrow.  Right now I feel super confident, but what if when I get there, I lose all my confidence?

When she asked this, I asked the other athletes in the training room, “If you have had thoughts like this, raise your hand,” and just about every hand came up.  We were able to talk through this with the group, asking, “Well, did that happen for any of you?” They’re responded that they’re all doing better than they thought they would.


That was nice, but I want to talk about anxiety.  Anxiety is basically equal to negative future thinking.  If you are in the future and you’re thinking about negative things happening, you will likely experience anxiety or nervousness.  So if you’re going along and you’re thinking, “Oh, well, what if this happens?  What if I get hit by a meteor?  What if I get run over by a bus?  What if I fall off this beam?  What if I lose all my confidence?”  With anything like that, your brain is going to go, “Threat!  Uh-oh, is there a bus?  Is there a meteor?  Are you failing?  Are you disappointing people?”  Your brain is going to start scanning.  It’s immediately going to go into lockdown mode.  Then it’s going to go, “Where’s the threat?  Where’s the threat?  Where’s the threat?”

Focusing on the Threat

Your focus has now changed from being generally aware of what’s going on to zeroing in on anything that’s going wrong or anything that might indicate that you’re losing your confidence.  You also have this avoidance thing where your brain tells you, “Don’t go to practice!  If you don’t go to practice, then you can’t fail.”  Then you might have a little resistance toward going to practice.  Then you also might have images flashing in your mind of things that went wrong before or days where you had no confidence or that day where you just kept bailing out of that skill.

Even though you’re still at home, you haven’t even been back to practice, your mind has already played out this whole scenario where you go back, you fail, you’re miserable, and your coach is mad at you and all your friends are doing really great.  That would probably make you tense, right?  Although you’re not even at practice, you’re already tense.  Your stomach is churning, you might not get good sleep, you also might not feed yourself well because you’re having this thing going on.

Super Mia!

In addition to the live group trainings, we also have 10 weeks of challenges.  I started talking to Nia and I asked, “Mia, have you done the superhero confidence challenge”. She said, “No, I haven’t done it yet.”  Here’s what would happen if she had.  We came up with a simple version of, we’re going to call her Super Mia.  She’s so confident, she is just going to handle these situations.  I asked, “What would Super Mia do if she had that thought?”  Mia said, “She would laugh and would never even have that thought. If she did have that thought, she’d be like, ‘Whatever, I’m going to go have a good time.'”

Superhero Confidence Challenge

What we do in that challenge is we pull out the best qualities that exist in you, the athlete, the things that are there on your best day, on your most confident day.  We separate those out and go, “Okay, if you could show up at practice as this person, just the best parts of you, what would be possible?”  And the response was, “Oh my gosh, I would talk like this, I would think like this, and I would act like this.”  They get this idea of “me on my best day and I’m going to call her Super Nia”.

Once she has that image, it might seem a little hokey, but she can easily say, “Okay.  Mia is falling apart, so Super Mia, you’re in.”  She can pull her in now she has the confidence to handle whatever the situation is.  Just that little switch can be a great way to remind yourself, “It’s fine.  I have all these great qualities and I’m going to pull those into the mix and leave the other ones behind – the doubtful, scared overthinking negative parts.  I’m just going to go ahead and leave my super villain at home.  I’m only taking Super me into the gym.”

Getting Present

So we asked her, “What would Super Mia do?” She said, “She would shrug it off if she even had that thought to begin with.”  So then we also talked about other ways of how to get yourself out of that cycle of the anxiety-inducing, future thinking.  The most simple way is to go, “Well, the future is not treating you well right now, the future is freaking you out.  Let’s get in the present.”  So every time we start our live group trainings, we always start with a deep breath in, through the nose, out through the mouth, and finding one pleasant thing.  Try that with me.  Just start a deep breath in, through your nose, out through your mouth.

One Pleasant Thing

Then find one pleasant thing that’s happening around you. Now, this is something that you can feel.  It could be a tingle in your fingers, the sensation of actually taking a deep breath for the first time all day, or it could be a fuzzy slipper you’re sitting next to.  Maybe it’s a pet or something delicious that you’re eating.  We always start our group trainings with finding one pleasant thing.  That is something that you can do at any moment.  If you’re getting all freaked out, you can go, “Oh, the reflection of my soda can is so nice,” and it will bring you back into the moment where everything is okay.

Something else we talked about with Mia about was the imagery challenge.  That’s another one of our 10 weeks of weekly challenges for training your mind.  In the imagery challenge, you learn how to get your brain to create images that will help it,  that will build the positive “what if”, so to speak.

Imagery Challenge

You can imagine a conversation going well, you can imagine being a great communicator, you can imagine not letting negative thoughts bring you down at all. You can imagine doing your skills with confidence and ease and that way you’re setting yourself up.  Instead of having all those images sabotaging you of you doing the wrong things, you have the images predetermined that you’re going to have in your mind that will allow your shoulders to relax and will allow you to trust your muscle memory.


In another one of our challenges, the happiness challenge, we talk about finding the good stuff.  Being able to be in the moment, being grateful… these will let your shoulders relax, calm down, and get into the moment, which takes that fight or flight brain response and dissipates it, all the while making you happier, which I don’t think anyone can be too happy.

There were a couple of other things that we talked about before we wrapped up our session.  I asked everybody in the group (usually, while I’m working with one athlete, we’ll have the whole group doing the exercises at the same time and chiming in and giving suggestions), “Everybody, think about the worst/least confident day you have had in the last six months.”  Mia said, “Oh, I’ve got one.  It was before the pandemic, this was happening,” and then a couple of other girls chimed in, but for the most part, it was actually kind of funny because there were a bunch of girls saying, “I can’t think of one.  I don’t know.  I haven’t had a really bad day recently.”

Well, good for them, but for those of us who have a bad day that we can refer to, we’re going to use it.  So she thought back on that day and she spoke about what happened.  She was bailing out on her tumbling and she was not going for it – over and over again.  Her coach was yelling at her, she was in tears and it ended up where she still didn’t throw the tumbling pass.  She was in tears and it actually started a month-long mental block.  The reason that she came to PerformHappy was to have us help her work through it.

Why Bad Days Happen

She was thinking about that day, and then we talked about it.  I told her, “It’s never random that you would have a bad day.”  There are always clues on your worst days.  There are clues as to why you were not so confident.  As we talked it through, she realized her reason for going for it was not the right reason.  The way that she approached it, once she started the downward spiral, she just kept digging it in deeper and deeper.  What she was assuming her coach was thinking might not have even been a reality in the beginning.

We found a lot of really amazing clues about why it went so sideways.  Then I asked again, “What about Super Mia?  What would she do?”  Ot took her a second.  She said, “Well, you know,” and I had to remind her that this version of her knows what to do, she knows exactly how to rebuild her confidence, she knows exactly what mental skills work for her.  So, she said, “She probably would ask for help after the first setback.  She’d do a little bounce back routine and then she would not have gone downhill so far.”

Then I asked, “So you, today, are different than the girl who had no tools, the girl who did not know how to handle fear.”  And she’s said, “Oh yeah.”  So good.  Confident Mia says, “If I have a bad day, I’ll learn from it, and if I have a great day.  I’ll learn from it and I’ll make progress.”  She doesn’t have to be stressed out.  She can just be confident.

Confidence is a Moving Target

The final thing that I talked about was that we have to acknowledge that confidence is a moving target.  You might go in on Monday and just kill it, you’re nailing everything. You’re doing great, you’re feeling good, your body feels good, you have a good rest, your friends are happy.  It’s your birthday.  Everything’s on your side!  Then you go in Tuesday – your friend was a jerk, you didn’t get enough sleep, didn’t eat enough breakfast, and you’re just in a bad mood.  All of a sudden, you’re not tumbling.

You have to have Super Mia ready to go, saying, “Hey, it’s okay.  What can we learn from this?  You have to have a good breakfast.  That was not enough sleep.  We really have to speak up today and ask for help.  Let’s start on an easier progression just so we can get a little success under our belt so that it doesn’t feel so bad.”  Then you go in and you do your best, and then you restart the next day.

Mental Toughness Journal

It’s helpful to have something where you write down all the clues that you find on a good day and all the clues that you find on a bad day that help you to figure out your personal pattern.  If you were going to work one on one with one of our coaches, this is what we do.  We help you figure out the clues so that you set up your mental game plan in a way that works perfectly for you.

If you have any questions, you can direct message us on Instagram @Complete_Performance.  You can also reach out on the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page, or you can email me at  I will see you soon.  Thanks!

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