7 Harmless Habits That Cause Mental Blocks in Athletes

There are seven harmless habits that sport parents, coaches, and athletes just do, especially in the gymnastics world that can cause mental blocks in athletes.  These are things that seem totally harmless. But they are the reason why there are so many athletes with mental blocks.

This means these athletes come up against fear in a pretty big way at some point during their sport career.  This happens in figure skating, gymnastics, tumbling, golf, and tennis. In fact, this phenomenon pops up all the time in many sports.  I’m going to share with you the main reasons that cause mental blocks in athletes, and I want you to keep track of how many of these are you guilty of.




7 Harmless Habits That Cause Mental Blocks in Athletes

Harmless Habit #1: Parents bragging about their athlete’s scores, talent, or potential

Anyone who has an athlete in a sport has bragged at some point about their kid scoring winning goal, getting first place, getting on the podium at every single meet, or about how amazing they are.  All of those types of statements might sound like they’re really helpful but they actually create what we call a fixed mindset.

Fixed Mindset

A fixed mindset is a mindset where you feel like everything you have in life was given to you.  It’s like a hand of cards that was dealt to you.  The fixed mindset says, “I am this smart, this funny, this talented, this beautiful, this creative… and that’s all I’ve got.  I need to make the best of it.”   What it shows is if everyone tells you you’re really smart but then you hit a math problem in fifth grade and you can’t do it, you look at that “smart card” and don’t think you’re smart anymore.  You start to wonder, “Has my intelligence peaked?”

This happens with talent too.  If you feel like you’re really talented, you can cruise by and get really confident. You might swing through the compulsory levels.  Then you get up to level six, seven, maybe eight in gymnastics, and all of a sudden you hit a wall and you feel like, “Oh my gosh, am I broken?  Has my talent run out?  Have I peaked?’

Whereas if you approach it from what we call a growth mindset, then you hit a wall and you go, “Alright.  Keep working.  Just got to keep working.”

So if you are talking a lot in terms of your athlete’s talent, their scores, their potential, or their outcomes, then you’re instilling this mindset that they have to be a certain thing and they’re built for it. It makes them feel like they’re made that way and came that way. That then makes them feel like if it stops working, there’s nothing they can do about it because it was just luck to begin with. This fixed mindset is one thing that can cause mental blocks in athletes.

Harmless Habit #2: An athlete not wanting to make waves / always doing what you’re told

Now this one falls on the athletes.  Athletes who do this are often considered the more coachable kids.  They just say, “Sir, yes, sir.  Yes ma’am, I’ll try it.”  They don’t really want to push back.  If something doesn’t feel safe, they don’t really want to say anything.  If they think they can’t do it, they do it anyway.  Then what happens is slowly, over time, they start to lose the voice inside of them that said, “I don’t want to do that, mom,” or “No, I don’t want to eat. I don’t like that food.”

Whatever that little voice that drives us crazy from that four or five-year old, by the time they get to be nine, 10, 11, 12, they develop this concept of social norms.  They think “I have to be the good girl” and “I have to do this” and it starts to shut down that internal voice.  If your brain doesn’t think you’re going to stand up for it, it pushes back. Meaning your brain goes “Hey, I don’t feel ready for this skill,” and this athlete who does not have a voice goes “Shut up brain.  I got to do it.  I just got to do it.”  So they don’t ever realize that there’s an issue and they’re able to force the skills some more.

A lot of athletes I’ve met over time who’ve gotten really good at pushing their voice down are the ones that end up with the mental blocks that are the deepest when they do emerge. Thus, athletes who always do what they are told end up shutting out those voices in their head and can often develop mental blocks.

Harmless Habit #3: Thinking that the coach knows what’s best for you

That sounds weird, right?  Of course the coach wants what’s best for you.  I was a coach.  I wanted what was best for the kids that I coached.  But here’s the problem – the athlete is the only expert on themselves.  The coach is an expert on maybe technique coaching, how to teach a certain skill, what it should look like, how to develop that skill, but the coach is not an expert that child or that individual.  The only person who is an expert on that person is the person, the athlete.

If an athlete starts thinking that only a coach knows what’s good for them or what’s right, they stop listening to their intuition.  This is the type of athlete that might do a really great beam routine and say, “Oh, it felt good,” and they look at their score and they think, “Oh, I failed.”  Or they might feel like, “Hey, I’m improving on this fault,” but the coach says, “Hmm, that wasn’t good.”  Even if it felt good for the athlete, they feel like they have to constantly be looking for other people’s feedback.  “Am I doing okay?  Is this what I should be doing?  Am I all right?  Does that look better?”

They stop owning their sport.  They really put it on to other people to tell them if they’re doing okay, which makes confidence really fragile because you can’t control if a judge is having a bad day, if a coach is having a bad day, if something else is going on. Sometimes coaches don’t actually know what’s best for you.  If you have shut down that ability in yourself to know what’s good for you, then that’s setting you up for fear in the future which can cause mental blocks.

Harmless Habit #4: Expecting to start where you left off yesterday

This is something I hear all the time.  “Well, I did it yesterday, then I went back and I tried it and it wouldn’t work.  I’m broken.”  This goes back to that fixed mindset of like, “Well, if I can’t do it, then there’s something wrong with me.”  Well, no.  Confidence is so multifaceted.  Confidence is this like an amoeba that’s made up of so many things. What you need is to be increasing it as much as possible to weather life.

Let’s say that you’re working on your beam series.  I always go back to beam because I was the beam coach and beam was where I had my mental block.  So let’s say you’re working on your beam series and you got it up to the medium beam.  It was rough and tough, but you got there.  Then, the next day your coach says, “Get them on the medium beam,” and you get up there and you freeze.  There are so many reasons why that might be the case.

Instead of expecting to be right where you were after you worked up from the floor, onto the low beam, and then you started working with mats, and then eventually you built your confidence up to that point, when you walk back in you have to build up your confidence again.  It doesn’t mean that you’re going to continuously have to build from scratch every single time, but if you expect to start where you were, and then you get disappointed if you can’t, then you’re not giving yourself credit for all those activities that have built your confidence up. So expecting to start where you left off yesterday is a reason that mental blocks happen.

Front-Loading Confidence

So you just have to know that you can’t necessarily start where you left off.  I’m a big fan of front-loading confidence.  If you know that you are not super confident on something, you are always better off starting with something that’s going to give you a little win, a little boost.  That way you go in and your confidence amoeba is already a little bigger because you already hit a really pretty one on the low beam.

I know this is not always available to you.  Some coaches want you to get up and do it, which is where those people pleasers who don’t know how to speak up have to start coming out of their shells so that they can really take care of their brain.

Harmless Habit #5: Assuming you just need to work harder

I’ve seen this a lot, too, where athletes already work hard as it is.  They really try their best, they float by on talent, but there’s a lot of effort going on, and then they hit a wall and then they try harder.  Then, they get up on the beam and it’s not working.  Now they don’t want to say anything because they feel like if they do, people will think they’re not talented.  They also don’t want to make any waves with coaches, so they decide to just try harder, but it doesn’t work.  Confidence amoeba melting into a puddle, confidence is going away.  Then they try harder and harder, and nothing. It doesn’t work.

Now they’re at this place where they’re thinking, “I don’t think it’s going to work, but there’s no other option and I’m stuck,” and they start orbiting the chalk bowl, so to speak, or wiping off their sweat for 20 minutes, or getting a lot of drinks of water, going to the bathroom.  But those harmless habits of, “I don’t know what to do.  I’m stuck so I’m going to just avoid,” that’s a result of thinking that you need to work harder when really you need to do something different. And that’s another reason why mental blocks happen in athletes.

Harmless Habit #6: Focusing on the outcome or deadlines

These are very innocent, harmless habits that a lot of parents do in the car on the way to practice.  They go, “What’s your plan for today?  What are you going to get done on this event?  What are you going to get done over here?  How many of those are you going to do?  How many routines you’re going to hit this week?”

As parents, we’re thinking,”I’m going just giving her the pep talk.  I’m so helpful.  I really care.  I know she doesn’t want to talk about it. But I just want to help her get on track and set some goals.”  That focus on outcomes, deadline, goals actually serves to eliminate an athlete’s trust of themselves.

They can go in thinking, “I have a voice, I trust my intuition., I know I’ll speak up for myself.  I’m not so worried about what other people think about me so I can ask for what I need. And if my confidence is a little shaky today, I can adjust my outcomes.  I can adjust my goals so that I feel like I’m making progress.”  But if they have an outcome in mind and think, “It has to be this, I have to win, or I have to get this score,” then they can’t trust themselves. And this is how mental blocks happen.


That’s something I go over in detail in one of my programs because that self-trust, that’s what we’re all looking for.  What we really want in sport is to be able to just step up, take a breath and go.  No thoughts, no tricks, no nothing.  You just to completely trust yourself.  If at anytime the expectations creep in, it interrupts your ability to trust yourself.

Harmless Habit #7: Coming up with tricks or rewards to go for scary skills

This is the most common thing that people do that actually sets you up for mental blocks, even though it sounds like it would do the opposite.  This is so common, especially for little kids. They’ll say things like, “Okay, coach, I need a countdown,” or, “I need somebody tell me to go!”  Or they have all these little tricks like, “I’m going to do this in my mind, and then on the count of three, I’m going to turn around, touch my hair, and then I’ll go.”

Band-Aid Fix

What happens is that maybe that works. And it works a little bit better with younger athletes who haven’t got the complex reasoning skills so they’re thinking, “Oh, I have to trick myself to go.  If I don’t go, then I don’t get a kitty.”  They come up with these little things to get themselves to go for scary stuff.  What’s happening is that this is putting a bandaid on the situation. This is not actually solving the fear issue and it’s not building confidence. It’s just building a bag of tricks that you can use to get yourself to go once or twice, but inevitably, it works for a little while and then stops working. I’ve seen this with so many athletes at so many different levels, especially high levels at very high producing gyms. Now this one works for a little while and then that stopped working.

One of the coaches on my team, Coach Briley Casanova, was a high-level gymnast.  She went to University of Michigan, a fabulous gymnast.  I was just talking to her earlier and she said, “Yeah, I had a big bag of tricks.  Until the day I graduated University of Michigan I was scared of skills.”  She never came to terms with her fear until afterward when she started studying sports psychology.

She learned to work with her fear rather than against it.

So those tricks and those rewards actually make it harder to dig out of that mental block hole versus doing it the right way.  That allows you to build confidence in a lasting way that allows you to trust yourself.  It allows you to be aware. You get a voice, you get an intuition, you get to be the strong, powerful young woman or man who gets to speak up for themselves and work with their fear. And you take those messages and apply them to really smart, really fun training.


If you can relate to any of those seven harmless habits that cause mental blocks in athletes, I don’t blame you.  This is stuff that most of the people I work with have done at one point or another.  I would love to invite you to free training that I’m putting on right now.  It’s all about breaking through fears and mental blocks the right way.  If that interests you, then you can click here to sign up right now.  It’s best if you can attend with your athlete.  You will both be able to get the solution together.  It’s important that you can speak the same language so that you can really get through it.  So check that out and reach out if you have questions.


7 Harmless Habits That Cause Mental Blocks with Coach Rebecca Smith

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