Overcoming Mental Block

Overcoming Mental Block

Excelling in sport is not just about being in peak physical condition. In fact, high performing elite athletes spend just as much time working on their mental focus as they do their physical condition. But what happens when the mental block sets in? How can young athletes overcome their fears to reach their maximum potential.

We’ve been chatting to Richard Hodgins of Caric Care Ltd, performance coach and sports psychology expert, who’s been given us some insight into his work with gymnasts, dancers and cheerleaders, along with some great ways to overcome mental blocks.

There are many reasons why an athlete might suffer mental block but these are all beatable once the cause is identified.

A sudden growth spurt due to a release of growth hormones is a common cause. When this happens the body changes in height and shape. The brain has developed a skill based on a certain size and shape which has steadily grown allowing the brain to gradually adapt. But when a growth spurt occurs the brain senses something different. So many skills in gymnastics, dance and cheer go against nature and evolution by throwing yourself backwards at speed. The brain is uncertain of new parameters and a fear of injury takes hold. It begins to question whether we have generated enough height and therefore have given ourselves enough time to turn and land safely.

Trauma can also cause a mental block, although this is usually called Lost Movement Syndrome. During trauma the synaptic pathways in the brain for a particular skill have been interrupted which caused the pain or injury in the first place. The new synaptic pathway for movement contains the trauma and so our brain wants to prevent the injury again.

Accepting mental block is part of development and progression is an important part of minimising its impact. When things are normalised the fear is removed.

Time is the key factor in overcoming mental block. Don’t rush recovery and re-learning. If a gymnast remains as close to comfortable as possible they feel safe and more willing to explore solutions.

One of my most memorable cases was an allstar cheerleader who was due to compete at the

ICU World Championships in Orlando, Florida. She had a mental block around backward tumbling. She had the tumbles but then for no apparent reason she just stopped.  We ruled out a growth spurt and any anxiety or fear as the cause. We dug a little deeper and found the block seemed to be rooted around the thought of going to the World Championships and that the routine she was working on relied quite heavily on a tumble sequence. She had convinced herself that the team’s score was dependent on her tumbling. In the midst of the mental block her coach told her not to worry because somebody else would probably have nailed it by competition time.

Psychologically she then developed avoidant behaviour. Her automatic thought was she couldn’t do it due to the pressure. When her coach said somebody else would do it, the pressure was removed and she felt more comfortable. This led her to believe that avoiding tumble was the solution to her bad feelings.

Once we had discovered this, we challenged it. We took away the context of the tumble and decided that now someone else was going to do it, she could do it without pressure. More or less straight away she hit it.  

Dr Patrick Cohn of Peak Performance Sports in the USA gives these top tips for gymnasts trying to overcome a mental block:

Replace negative self-talk with powerful commands. Instead of saying ‘I hate tumbling, I am going to land on my head, say ‘I can do this, I am strong and I can make it.’

Fill your mind with performance cues which are reminders and prompts that you say to yourself while performing a skill. For example, when performing a handstand, it is important to lock out your shoulders, squeeze your legs together, and look at your hands. The performance cues for a handstand could be “lock- squeeze.”

Create a routine. Before you attempt the fearful skill make sure you are prepared. For example, take a deep breath, visualise or feel yourself performing the skill successfully, walk into your beginning position and take another deep breath. Say your performance cues three times, count to three and then go.

Get ready to fight for it. After learning steps 1-5 you will be ready with the tools needed to overcome a mental block. But it won’t be easy. Once you get in position to try the skill you may “hit a wall”. You want to do it, but there is something inside of you telling you to stop. Get ready to fight those thoughts. You know those thoughts will spring into your head, don’t let them win. Mental blocks are a fight you can win.

So if you are a gymnast suffering with mental block, or know somebody who is, remind them that it’s just a temporary set-back. Mental blocks are a fight you can win.

You can find out more about Richard’s work at www.cariccare.co.uk or follow him on Instagram @coach_caric