Breaking Mental Blocks

focusCommonly in the sport of gymnastics you have athletes who are scared to perform a skill. It may be a skill they have done before without a problem, it could be a skill that they have performed and had a fall with or it could be a new skill. I want to address the first two because for a coach, there is nothing more frustrating than seeing an athlete learn a complex skill and then fail to perform it for “no apparent reason”. I have a quote on the board at gym that says “Danger is real, fear is a choice” and I am going to expand on that a little to give my thoughts on how to get over this issue with higher level athletes. The reason I term them higher level athletes is because to a point a younger or less experienced athlete can be helped with repeated spotting and good progressions. When you are talking about a level 6-9 athlete who is in this boat it’s different, the issue is almost always with the mental approach and not the mechanics of the skill and while spotting may allow them to perform the skill it’s actually causing them to rely on the coach and not to work past the issue at hand.

Danger is real. This is true, there are few sports I can think of where the risk of injury is more prevalent than in gymnastics. The higher level athletes are routinely in positions of peril however consistent quality drilling allows them to accomplish these feats with little apparent effort. Even the simplest handspring on the floor is rife with danger, just ask anyone who has ever slipped on wet grass or a polished floor while trying to show their friends their skills (which is why, by the way, I encourage my kids NEVER to do gymnastics skills outside of the gym.). However, the presence of danger doesn’t preclude an athlete from attempting and mastering the skill.

Fear, then is a response but a chosen response. For me a handstand is terrifying. I am getting over it but in my personal position, the handstand is incredibly risky. I am taking it slowly and working my way to killing the fear with repetition which is exactly what you should do. Nothing will cure fear better than repetition. Tony Robbins used to say that “repetition is the mother of skill” or maybe it was Tony Horton, either way it’s true. How many high level athletes are scared of cartwheels or handstands? None, it’s part of their makeup now just as any skill can become with enough exposure.

But on to the cure that occurred to be today. This is not based on anything more than my personal experience with athletes, myself and the many people I have helped to train over the years. It is probably derived partly from the newly appended fight flight or freeze notion whereby the human as a biological entity is committed to self preservation. As far as I know and I am far from an expert, this freeze notion is not exclusive to humans, that is why we have the “deer in the headlights” quip. In that scenario the deer is up against something it can’t fight and can’t outrun causing a complete shutdown. Taking this into the gymnastics context we have an athlete, let’s call her Sally, who is having a problem with her roundoff back handspring back tuck. She’s done it before, she can still do it most of the time with a spot but for whatever reason she is unable to get it done alone. What is happening here? In essence she is up against something like the deer was, something she thinks she doesn’t have to tools to deal with. In the case of the deer, it’s fast enough to get out of the way if it keeps going and in the case of the athlete she is capable of success but only with outside assistance. In both cases the choice made is incorrect. You can’t freeze in front of a vehicle and you can’t compete with a coach on the floor…

This leads me to what is causing the fear because that’s what we are talking about. Some athletes will tell you they are not afraid but for an advanced athlete doing a complex skill this is mostly not the case. There are only 2 aspects to a skill, mechanics and mental focus. If they have one then the other is missing. Sometimes mental focus is not fear based but cognition based but that is something that is cured with repetition. Fear based mental focus problems are tougher and here is what I think.

When I ask Sally what she is afraid of she will tell me she doesn’t know. Or she will tell me she isn’t afraid which is a little bit of a lie on her end. She may want to call it something else but we both know she’s scared. She isn’t lying here, she probably doesn’t know why she is scared and that is the problem. Her fear is a generalized fear of something that may or may not go wrong. It’s a generalized anxiety that is causing her brain to tell her to be afraid. This is where the re-training has to start.

Let’s get Sally to talk through the skill. Can she do the roundoff? Yes, mostly that’s fine. The handspring? Yes, her springs are wonderful. Does she know the takeoff position for the tuck? Yes, she knows to go long on her exit and punch up to the ceiling using her arms. Can she do a back tuck? You bet she can, she can almost do a standing BT on the floor for goodness sake. At this point let’s check with Sally and see if any of these things scare her. Her response should be that none of them scare her. At which point she will probably say “BUT…. doing them together…” at which point you stop her and tell her to repeat what she just told you.

You may discover that there is a disconnect somewhere in the skill, something she is doing that is making her feel unsafe but this is rare. Mostly you will get a sheepish look and an admission that nothing about the skill actually scares her but “it’s just going over that is the problem”. Well, not quite. Going over isn’t the problem, the problem is thinking that going over is the problem. If you are going to address a mental issue with a skill you have to break the fear down into separate parts and have Sally tell you exactly where her fear comes from. If she can’t tell you the exact second she feels the fear then she should start to understand that her ability to do the skill doesn’t come from a coach standing on the floor but rather from her interpretation of what is about to happen. Once she stops focusing on the negative outcome and starts to look at her execution as a means to a positive end then she should start to turn the skill around.

Some skill fears you can beat with pure repetition, but there are times when you need another approach. Continuously sending a child into a dark room to cure their fear of the dark won’t work but turning on the light to expose the room first is probably a great start to getting over the fear of what might be. Expose the dangers, be open and honest about the fears but start to think about where your focus needs to be to stop those fears from emerging.

This may be overly simplistic for some, but exposing the pieces of the puzzle and examining them for what they are separately can go a long way towards exposing the root of the problem. It’s not rational that one fall out of 3000 repetitions is the one they remember but that’s how it is. Our brains are wired to protect us and when we ask “what could go wrong?” our brain is only too happy to provide a response. But asking your brain “how do I get this right” will also provide you with a valuable response because that’s what training does, it provides you with the correct response for the question “how do I do that?”.

There is another quote on that board, a very famous one… “Don’t train until you get it right, train until you can’t get it wrong” and training your thought process to be specific about your execution is one way to make sure that your training will take you to that final destination. Don’t forget to reinforce your success. After each successful event take a moment to reinforce that action, close your eyes and relive that moment until it becomes second nature to you.

Good luck, Sally. We believe in you.

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