How can coaches help their athletes deal with mental blocks?

In most areas of life, young people learn valuable lessons through their mistakes. In sport this is no different, however most of this learning process is quite un-eventful. You miss a goal, drop a ball or you simply don’t win a race. In gymnastics, however, when you make a mistake during a skill, there can be very scary consequences. Falls can sometimes lead to injuries and as a gymnast progresses through to higher levels, skills become more difficult, increasing the likelihood of falling and incurring an injury. This can mean a gymnast experiences feelings of fear which can lead to what's called “mental blocks.” A mental block is often a fear that is preventing your gymnast from performing a specific skill. 

Getting to the root of the problem

When addressing mental blocks with your athletes, you need to understand why it developed in the first place. Scary falls, close calls, competition pressure and frustrated coaches can all be reason as to why a gymnast will develop fears around certain skills. When an athlete starts to develop a fear in their mind it’s the nervous system’s natural response to protect itself from that fear. So you will often see them freeze and refuse to complete a skill. They usually have no conscious control over why they can’t perform a skill and so many of these fear-based blocks don’t make logical sense to those surrounding the athlete. Therefore it is best to deal with it calmly and be as supportive as possible. When collaborating with your athlete try using some of these steps below:

1. Acknowledgment

the first step to overcome mental blocks is acknowledging and recognising there is one. Gymnasts are usually the first to realise they’re suffering a mental block however some may choose to simply avoid a certain skill without their coach even realising. As coaches we need to be observant and look for signs that our athletes may be avoiding certain skills. It’s important to assess whether this block centres around one singular skill or if it generalises across multiple skills. For example, a fear of a back walkover on beam may spread to a fear of back walkover on floor.

2. How did it form?

This is often the hardest step because some gymnasts may not be able to articulate exactly why they are suddenly unable to complete a skill. Fears can develop for a number of reasons, perhaps after a fall that resulted in an injury, fear of failing or disappointing a coach or maybe it’s due to them overthinking therefore leading to an overall confusion on how to do it. Choose an appropriate time to sit down with your gymnast, away from the rest of the squad and calmly speak to them about it. It may be due to factors outside of the gym, like a traumatic event or change in circumstances. As coaches it is important to remember that you are an ongoing source of support for your athlete and maintaining their positive mental health is just as important as teaching them skills.

3. A sense of perspective

Mental blocks are a small setback that can be solved, it is not a character flaw. You need to reiterate to your gymnast that this is not a sign of a personal weakness. It is actually a fairly common problem that so many Olympic gymnasts have had to endure. If your athlete is motivated to solve the problem, then outline to them that they are already well on their way to tackling it. Also, as a coach you may need to step back to create perspective for yourself. Do you need another coache’s assistance to address this? Were you putting too much pressure on them? Coaches also need to reflect on why this happened.

4. Be realistic

It is important for you and your athlete to set an ideal timeframe to overcome this fear. It is rare that a mental block will disappear in a week, so be prepared that it might take a month or two for them to regain their confidence. Devise a plan on how to address this fear and be prepared that it may mean going back to the basic progressions for that skill. This also may mean you need to take that skill out of immediate competition to ensure your athlete’s overall wellbeing.

5. Progressions

Sometimes the best way to overcome mental blocks is by going through all the progressions to essentially learn the skill again. This may be extremely frustrating for coaches however it can often be one of the most effective ways for a gymnast to regain confidence. It’s important not to make the athlete feel guilt or shame at having to do it again as their own emotions could be a key factor into why they lost it in the first place. As they progress through the drills be sure to set a certain amount of attempts they need to complete. This gives them an end goal to work towards and prevents them from spending hours and hours on the same thing. Limiting the amount will also provide them with a sense of relief when they are finished. For example you may set 10 attempts, 5 with spot, 5 without. Once they have completed the correct amount move on and focus on something else. Also, be sure to always plan and map out your athlete’s development pathway. Progressing too quickly through skills can sometimes cause mental blocks later on for your athletes.

6. Spotting

One of the biggest things to remember when helping an athlete with a mental block is to never mislead then whilst spotting. If your gymnast goes for a skill and you decide to suddenly stop assisting them halfway through, it could result in them developing strong feelings of uncertainty and mistrust. The athlete needs to know they are fully supported and that you will be there. Mental blocks are different to learning new skills. They already know they are capable of completing the skill but it’s their fears that are holding them back.

7. Create a positive experience

Sometimes negative thinking can directly affect a gymnast’s ability to enjoy achieving the skill again. So try and encourage the gymnast to explore the skill through play or in controlled setting. Ideas like allowing them to complete it in a spotting belt or into a pit will alleviate fears around falling and will hopefully spark the enjoyment they once had when learning it.

8. Performance cues

If overthinking is the reason for a mental block, try and teach your gymnasts to limit the amount of internal thinking they do. Limit them to simple reminders or prompts they can say to themselves while they are performing the skill. Encourage them to repeat three to four key words rather than whole concepts in their head. For example, instead of thinking about locking their shoulders out, looking at their hands and keeping arms straight encourage them to focus on just the words “LOCK, HANDS & STRAIGHT” to minimise all the sentences in their head.

9. Continue to check in

Teaching your gymnasts technical skills is only part of being a coach. Monitoring your athlete’s mental health is extremely important as poor mental health can impact their entire life, not just what they do in the gym.