What It’s Like to Break Through a Mental Block

What It’s Like to Break Through a Mental Block

Hi everybody.  I’m Coach Rebecca Smith, founder and director of Complete Performance Coaching.  Thank you for joining me.  Today, I am going to talk what it’s like to break through a mental block.  Some of you may know that this is part of my personal story.  I actually did not break through my mental block.  That’s what sent me on this journey to figure out how to do it.

Today I want to explain what it’s like to have a mental block for parents or coaches who just cannot understand what’s going on with your athlete.  I will also discuss things people try, often, and what doesn’t work out of that list and what does, and then if it can work for you, because it’s the type of thing that not everybody is meant to break through, and I’m going to talk about that at the end.

What is a mental block?

A mental block, in case you don’t know, is something that pops up in a lot of sports, especially what I call the “scary sports”.  This is my specialty – working with gymnasts, figure skaters, cheerleaders, divers – athletes who have a physical safety risk.  This can also happen in sports like tennis or golf.  In this case, it’s called the yips, where all of a sudden you can’t serve or you can’t putt. Something just happens where your physical body sort of sabotages you.  I’ve also seen this in team sports like soccer and hockey, where all of a sudden you physically cannot be aggressive.

What people think is happening, they see these athletes with these well-known skills, these sets of skills that they’ve been training forever, essentially, all of a sudden aren’t working.  For me, it was my back walkover on the beam.  I was going and then it just stopped working.  It feels random, it feels scary, and the athlete starts thinking, “What’s wrong with me?  Am I broken?”  Then parents go, “Why don’t you just do the thing you did last week, honey?”  And the coach is saying, “Quit messing around!  Stop being lazy.  Go do the skill.  What’s the problem here?”

Mental Block vs. Fear

It can be a very stressful experience, and it looks like fear, especially in those scary sports.  It looks like, “Oh, she’s afraid of that skill.  Now that’s weird because it wasn’t scary before.”  So people are looking at it like, “Well, what are you afraid of?  You’ve done it before you didn’t get hurt, so what’s the problem?”  You’ll find that teammates really try to be helpful.  They’ll say things like, “Just go for it.  You’ve got this!  Come on.  We believe in you!”  Meanwhile, the athlete is thinking, “Hey, that’s a really great idea, but if that was it, that’s what it took, I would have gone by now.  Stop talking to me.”

A lot of the athletes I work with wish their teammates would stop saying things that they think are supportive.  All it does is cause stress.  So coach is asking, “What’s wrong?  Go ahead and go,” teammates are shouting, “You’ve got this,” and then mom’s in the car going, “Did you do it today?”  Meanwhile, the athlete is just crumbling because they don’t know what’s wrong with them. They don’t know why they can’t do it, they don’t know why it’s not as simple as “just go for it”,  and it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever experienced.

Blocks Triggered by Pressure

This typically happens when the pressure is on.  For example, the pressure of coming back to work out after pandemic quarantine, or the pressure of getting up to speed by a certain deadline for competitions or tryouts.  There’s usually some sort of added pressure that creates these situations.

What most people try (in these situations I’m talking about the athletes) is they try harder.  They will say, “Well, that one felt really weird and I don’t know why, but I’m going to try to not make a big deal out of it and I’m just gonna try it again.  Well, that didn’t work either.  Oh God, what’s wrong with me?  This is not good.”  They get this sort of doom feeling setting in, and then they’re trying again and they’re trying to get it, and they’re getting really frustrated.  The coach says, “You good?”  Their response is, “I’m fine.  I’m fine.  I’m fine.”

Then after practice, mom asks, “How was practice?”  Again, “Fine.  Practice was fine,” and they keep it to themselves and hope that nobody notices, knowing that tomorrow’s going to be another day.  Then, they show up the next day thinking, “Maybe it will work today.  Maybe yesterday was a fluke,” but meanwhile, they have this negative self-talk going on, “Oh my gosh.  Yesterday was terrible.  What if I don’t get this skill in time?  This is not good.”

This creates stress.  Just talking about it I can feel it – my throat and my chest on fire, remembering the sensation of, “Okay, it’s fine.  It’s not a big deal,” and at the same time not breathing, totally tense.  You’re acting like it’s business as usual, but really you have this doom living in your body so when you go to try it, it doesn’t work.  Then the second day, the third day, the fourth day, it gets to this point where you’re thinking, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me!”

The Brain’s Response

What’s happening here is that the brain is sensing some danger.  We talked about danger and that fear of getting hurt.  That’s sort of the obvious thing that you would assume is causing this reaction, and that could be happening if you have experienced an injury doing that skill, that can be a pretty obvious connection of what’s going on in your brain.  But for most of the athletes that I work with, it’s not the injury.  It’s something else that just feels like it came out of nowhere.

What it really is is that your brain is sensing a threat to your safety, but it’s not a physical threat, it’s an emotional threat.  When you’re in the age range of 10 to 18 when your frontal lobes are still developing, you’re impulsive, not very rational, and you’re very driven your social life.  Your social life is actually the most important thing to you at that age because you have to start to feel like you fit in in order to feel like you’re living.

Different Types of Fear

  • Fear of being left behind – your team is going to move up without you
  • Fear of disappointing yourself – not being able to cope with that feeling of disappointment,
  • Fear of disappointing your parents – they have invested so much into your sport career,
  • Fear of disappointing your coach – they’ve given you so many hours of their life
  • Fear of coming back – maybe you’re not going to be where you could have been

If you were to fail, for many athletes that age, it may feel like you would die of disappointment or you would die of the feeling of failure that you would just be completely crushed.  After you’ve had a couple of rounds of mental blocks, you develop this additional fear of what, if it comes back, when you get tense, even when you’re succeeding, you’re like, I’m okay now, but Oh gosh, I better not. I don’t even want to work those right now because I’m afraid that I’ll get afraid.


So that’s the experience.  What people typically try is avoiding it.  They hope other people don’t notice and it will just get better.  Then, parents have no idea for months and finally the coach says, “Oh yeah, she hasn’t done her flyaway in six months,” and the parents want to know why no one said anything!

Then coaches try all the things because for the most part, these coaches love their athletes and they want them to succeed.  They’re pushing harder, they’re backing off, they’re bribing, they’re threatening – they are trying everything to try to get the motivation to come back.  They want the athlete to just go for the skill.  Sometimes they can actually get the desire up by playing a game or going to a competition and the skill will come back temporarily.  But when that’s not in place, the brain shuts back down and doesn’t want anything to do with those skills that it equates with that unsafe feeling, whether it’s physically or emotionally.

Finding What REALLY Works

Now, here’s what actually works.  A little backstory – I was a gymnast.  I was also a coach for 15 years.  During my entire 25 years of gymnastics, being in the trenches as a gymnast and a coach, I still could not crack the code of mental blocks.  I went into sports psychology, graduate school, still not knowing how to break through a mental block because it was such an elusive concept.  It was the bane of my existence as a gymnast, fan, as a coach.  So I started studying skill loss, mental blocks, and anxiety and fear in gymnastics, and really digging in.  I’m going to be honest – when I went and sat with my first one-on-one client who was dealing with a mental block, I thought, “Oh God, I really hope I can help her.”  I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to help her.

Every time I came back to our next session, I would hope she made progress so I could feel good about myself.  I was really trying.  However, I was back to that same coaching mentality of, “I really hope she just does her stupid back handspring today so I can breathe again.”  So I did what I do with clients and I started trying to find clues.  I dug in and was asked myself, “What are the clues that we can figure out that set you up for this?”  And this is how I started to figure out that it’s not this fear of physical injury.  For some it is, but for most, it’s not.  It’s this emotional thing.

Emotional Fear

For this particular client.  It was all about her fear of embarrassment.  She would say, “Wait, really?  That’s enough to make me not tumble and not reach my dream.  What on earth?”   So we dug that out.

What I figured out was (after working with hundreds of athletes) a solid, two-pronged approach that you must take.  Most people focus on the physical and you must focus on the physical, but there’s also another part to it.  For the physical, you have to start with the right progressions, ease into them, and know that every day is a moving target.  You might go in one day feeling so good and your boyfriend just asked you out and your friends think you’re the best.  You got an a on your math test and like, life is going great, and it’s your birthday.  You go in and you’re just killing it.  You hit all your skills, your coach is so proud of you – best day ever.

Then, you go in , the next dayand you didn’t get enough sleep because it was your birthday.  You ate too much sugar and you got disappointed because something happened.  All of a sudden your skills don’t feel good.

Find Neutral Ground

You compound that over time and you’ve grown and you have had different things go up and down in your life, so it’s reasonable that you’d have a good day and a bad day, right?  We all know that you have good days and bad days.  The thing that gets into your head is that you might have a bad day and go, “Oh, what’s wrong with me?”  Instead of just being neutral and saying, “Well, let’s figure out the clues.  What set me up for success yesterday?  What did not set me up for success today?”  That’s the groundwork.  You have to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t work for you because it’s different for everybody.

From there you start easing it in the way that works best for you.  I have found a way that works best for most, and from there you can make your own adjustments.  That’s the first part of it.  You have to get the progressions right on that day and you have to be able to communicate with your coach in order to make that happen.  If you’re just going to be crying in the corner of the floor, hoping that you would get it to just work without having to ask for any help, then you end up quitting your sport at 14.  I don’t recommend that.

Mental Escalator

The second part of it, once you get the physical in place, is the mental.  I like to think of this part as an escalator.  You see your friends just going up the escalator, getting their skills and moving through the levels.  You’re like climbing the escalator and you’re not going anywhere.  You’re climbing up the down escalator and you’re working as hard, if not harder, than everybody else on your team, but for some reason, you keep getting stuck with these stupid mental blocks.  What’s happening is that you are doing the right progressions. Hopefully, you are moving in at the speed that works for you.  You’re communicating with your coach.  You’re doing the right stuff, but you’re like, “Why can I not dependably break through these mental blocks?”

Be Nicer to Yourself

What’s happening is that you’re being so hard on yourself through the process, you’re so focused on perfection, on the end goal, or on wanting it now.  You’re putting in all this work and you’re not going anywhere because of your relationship with yourself and your relationship with other people in your life.

So here’s how you speed it up, how you get off the down escalator and get on the up escalator so that your effort will actually start paying off.  You have your physical numbers, you have to be extremely consistent.  If you can’t physically train, say you go on vacation or you have a few days off in a row, you mentally train.  That’s going to keep you consistent.

What’s Keeping You Stuck?

Then you have to address the underlying issues, those things that are keeping you stuck.  I have a free training that I’m doing that’s about those three phases in detail that they get you going from fearful and confused.

Phase 1: Awareness

The first phase is awareness, and interestingly enough, that’s the hardest part of my online program – getting through the awareness phase.  People don’t want to see what they’re not doing.  They just want it to get better.  That’s why breaking through mental blocks is not for the faint of heart.  It’s not for the people who want to stay comfortable.  It’s for the people who are thinking, “I want my dream.  I think I can have it. I think I can work hard enough, and I’m willing to get out of my comfort zone in order to break through this,” because let’s face it – you’re so uncomfortable anyway when you’re dealing with this problem.  Most people I spoke with said, “Yeah, sure.  I’ll be uncomfortable.  Bring on the discomfort.”

But it’s a different type of discomfort.  What’s happening is you’re having to look at what you are doing.  What you’ve been taught by trusted coaches and maybe even trusted parents is not working.  That’s actually compounding the problem.  That whole “try harder and don’t ask for help” thing has to go out the window.  The idea that needing help is the ultimate failure has to go out the window, too.  For a lot of athletes, that’s actually what prevents them from being great.  They feel like they don’t want to need help and let’s face it, anybody who’s ever accomplished anything great has had a lot of help.  That’s just the way it goes.

No amout of that type of coaching is going to work if we don’t address the awareness piece first.  You also have to get a very clear look at what you’re doing and why it’s working or not working.  That’s the first phase.

Phase 2: Confidence

Then the second phase is all about confidence.  You build your confidence with strategies that have been proven through research.  Everything I do is research-based, and that helps you find your personal clues of what works for you, what’s worked for you in the past, and then also adding in the strategies that actually rewire your brain for confidence and to start looking at what’s going well instead of what’s going badly.

I love that the confidence piece is not “I’m going to work hard and get confident”.  No.  You have to actually have a little more fun.  You have to actually feel successful before you can get successful.  You have to be happy before anything can ever make you happy.  So that’s my focus.  We get you to the point where you already feel successful and happier.  Then, you can relax your shoulders and go into the gym and be say, “All right, let’s see what I’ve got today.”

That’s where most sports psychology experts actually stop their work.  They’re like, “Yeah, you feel confident.  You’re feeling like you’re having more fun.  You have all these tools in your toolbox.  You know what to say to yourself, you know what to think, you know how to visualize…”  But then I discovered a new piece of the puzzle.

Phase 3: Self-Trust

I’ve added this in recently when I did a full redo of my courses.  There was this figure skater I worked with who was now at the world level, there were these gymnasts that were going off to college, and I noticed what they had in common.  Yes, they got aware.  Yes, they built their confidence with the thing that they had was what I always wanted when I was 14, which was self-trust.

They could literally set out to do their sport, quiet their mind, and activate their body.  They just did it.  They didn’t need to pull out their whole toolbox and read through all their things and think about other stuff.  It wasn’t about that. It was that they had built this confidence that penetrated, even beyond sport, to the point where they really trusted themselves, they trusted their training, and they trusted their coaches.  This was something that they had to unearth in the first phase, get to work on, and then they had to really practice it in the trust phase. That’s the great thing about self-trust, just like any trust, it can be earned. I t’s not something that you either have, or you don’t have.

So … Can You Do It?

Those are the three things that I go over in detail in that free training.  So, my question for you is: Can you break through your mental wall?  Not everybody can.  Here’s what you need to be able to answer for yourself. If you think you want to do the work to transcend this and get yourself to that point of confidence and trust, yes, you can break through your mental block if, like I said, you are willing to be uncomfortable.  Change is uncomfortable.  I’m talking about you changing everything about how you approach your sport in some aspects.

If you are more committed to being comfortable, you’re not going to be able to break through it because your brain wants you to avoid.  Your brain, wants you to stay stuck.  Your brain has this thing called homeostasis going on where its whole job is to keep everything the same: your body temperature, your blood pressure, everything about your body is supposed to stay the same because right now you’re alive and your brain wants to keep it that way.  Any adjustments like conditioning or a really hard workout, your brain is going to send off these alarm bells “Stop! Stop!” but it’s in that discomfort that you grow as an athlete and as a human.

Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

You have to be the type of person who is absolutely willing to do what it takes to break through a mental block, even if it means being massively uncomfortable for a few weeks.  You must be willing to push through those little patterns in your brain that you don’t know you have yet.  Your brain isn’t going to want to let go of the stubbornness, and you will be thinking that you can do it alone because this is keeping you safe, but you have to venture out into it.

Ask for Help

The other thing is you can break through your mental block if and only if you are willing to ask for help.  You cannot fix the problem with the problem. A friend of mine says, “You cannot think your way out of a mental problem.”  You can’t because your brain is not rational when it’s in the fear response.  You have to have that awareness, the tools, and then also the relationships that can foster this for you, then you can truly thrive in your sport and get to that level where you really feel like you want to be.

FREE Fear & Mental Block Breakthrough Webinar

As I said, there’s this webinar training and you can click here to sign up for whatever spot is available.  This training will give you more detailed information on what I talked about today.  If you have any questions, feel free to reach out.  You can reach me via email at rebecca@completeperformancecoaching.com.  Thank you so much for being here and I’ll see you soon.

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