#150: Mental Blocks: What Works (and Doesn’t) To Help Your Athlete Overcome Them

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Do you ever notice your athlete struggling with mental blocks? These barriers can hinder their confidence and performance; this is why it’s important for coaches to understand effective strategies for helping them overcome these obstacles.

The question is: How do you help your athlete overcome them?

In this article, I’ll be sharing some valuable insights on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to helping your athletes conquer mental blocks. Join me as we explore proven techniques such as open communication, goal setting, visualization, building a supportive network, and gradual exposure. Let’s get started!

What Are Mental Blocks?

First things first: What exactly are mental blocks?

Mental blocks are like psychological roadblocks that can hold athletes back from performing at their best. Picture this: An athlete is suddenly unable to do something they used to be great at. It’s frustrating, right? These blocks commonly appear in sports where there’s a lot of pressure or physical challenges, like gymnastics, diving, cheerleading, and skating. But don’t be fooled, they can happen in any sport and to any athlete.

Mental blocks often stem from pressure, fear, or even previous injuries. Our brain’s main job is to keep us safe, so when it senses danger, it puts up a mental block to protect us. Things like fear of making mistakes, failure, or feeling stressed can also contribute to these blocks. Also, it’s important that you don’t make the athlete feel bad or guilty for having the mental block. Statements like “You’ve done this before, why can’t you do it now?” or “Just stop overthinking” can create a sense of blame and add unnecessary pressure and stress.

It’s important to remember not to pressure or bribe athletes to overcome mental blocks, as it just adds more stress. Instead, you should provide support and understanding. To help athletes overcome these hurdles, make sure to create a safe and supportive environment for them to regain their confidence.

Identifying Mental Blocks (And What to Do to Help Your Athlete Overcome Them)

To help effectively address mental blocks, it’s important that you learn how to identify them early on. Make sure to keep an eye out for changes in your athletes’ behavior, motivation, or sudden performance dips. These signs can indicate the presence of mental blocks such as fear of failure, self-doubt, or performance anxiety.

If you’re able to identify signs of a mental block in your athletes, here are some things you can do to help them overcome it:

Acknowledge It.

It’s important to bring awareness and acknowledge the presence of a mental block, rather than avoiding or ignoring it. Let your athlete know that experiencing a mental block is normal and common among athletes. At some point in her career, your athlete is likely to encounter a mental block, whether it’s something small like feeling hesitant in pressure situations or a specific circumstance.

Let her know that this is normal and temporary, assuring her that even the best athletes face mental blocks. Avoid adding pressure and instead take a low-pressure approach, emphasizing that her body will guide her when she’s ready. Offer support and provide opportunities to work on the underlying foundations that will help her overcome these blocks.

Focus on Skills.

Next, focus on the skills she feels comfortable doing. Scaling back a bit can help her regain confidence and excel in those skills that lead to the larger skill she’s working on. For example, she might practice on the mat instead of the beam, or take shots in lower pressure situations rather than high-pressure ones. By building comfort and competence in these foundational skills, she can gradually progress towards her goal.

Visualization is a powerful tool, especially for athletes who are struggling with mental blocks. In our programs, we teach athletes how to visualize with all five senses. It’s important for her to see herself performing the skill confidently, rewiring her subconscious and creating a strong mental image of success. By vividly imagining herself performing the skill the way she desires, she can reprogram her mind and enhance her performance.

Mindfulness, Awareness, and Presence.

Mindfulness, awareness, and presence are key strategies to bring you into the present moment. In our program, we focus on different breathing exercises, like the “hot cocoa breath,” where you inhale deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth, as if you’re blowing on a cup of hot cocoa. We also use techniques like box breathing, where you focus on your breath in a specific pattern. Tuning into your senses is another effective method. Try focusing on objects up close and gradually shifting your focus further away.

I also encourage the use of tactile cues, such as incorporating music or creating a snapback routine. This routine involves combining a breath with a reset word and a physical gesture like rubbing two fingers together or clapping hands. These techniques can help you stay grounded in your body and the present moment, enabling you to perform skills without being weighed down by past experiences or future worries. Together, we’ll work on strengthening your mental game and conquering those mental blocks.

Celebrate Small Wins and Successes.

Another important approach is to celebrate the small wins and successes that your athlete experiences. Instead of focusing solely on what she can’t do at the moment, focus on what she can do. Whether it’s during practice or training, celebrate those achievements. For example, acknowledge her ability to perform a forward skill or successfully take a shot or serve from a certain distance. Even if these accomplishments may not be directly connected to the larger skill she’s struggling with, celebrating them builds confidence and helps her recognize that she still possesses a range of abilities.

Furthermore, it’s important that you encourage self-compassion and kindness. How your athlete talks to herself during this time matters a lot. In our program, we address this specific issue and provide guidance for sports moms as well. We discuss the importance of shifting from negative self-talk to self-compassion. Remind your athlete to treat herself the way she would treat a teammate or friend experiencing a mental block. Just like she would offer supportive and positive words to them, she should extend the same kindness to herself.

What Doesn’t Work

While discussing what works, it’s equally important to address what doesn’t work when it comes to helping athletes overcome mental blocks. Avoid these approaches:

Ignoring the Issue.

Ignoring mental blocks or expecting athletes to just “toughen up” rarely leads to positive outcomes. Athletes may feel unsupported and invalidated when their mental blocks are ignored. To address these mental blocks proactively, provide your athlete with the necessary resources and support to help them navigate whatever block they’re struggling with.

Overemphasis on Results.

Placing excessive focus on winning can contribute to increased pressure and mental blocks. Shift the focus towards the process, encouraging athletes to enjoy the journey, learn from setbacks, and value personal growth. By embracing this mindset, athletes will develop resilience and find joy in the sport itself.

Final Thoughts

Experiencing mental blocks can be tough for any athlete, but don’t worry! With the right strategies, coaches can help them overcome these challenges. It all starts with acknowledging the mental block and creating a supportive environment. Then, encourage your athletes to focus on skills they feel comfortable doing as this allows them to regain their confidence and build a solid foundation for overcoming their mental blocks. Then, emphasize the importance of mindfulness and self-awareness, as these practices can help athletes navigate their mental barriers more effectively.

Also, don’t forget to celebrate the small wins and successes along the way! These milestones are essential for building confidence and breaking through mental barriers. Remember, mental blocks are a normal part of every athlete’s journey, so providing guidance and support is crucial.

Together, as coaches, let’s empower our athletes to develop the resilience and mental strength they need to succeed. By working hand in hand, we can help them break free from mental blocks and unlock their full potential.

Episode Highlights: 

[00:00] What works, what doesn’t work when helping your athlete overcome mental blocks.

[02:05] What are mental blocks and why do they happen?

[03:44] What is a mental block and how does it happen?

[06:05] What not to do if your athlete is experiencing a mental block.

[08:19] Don’t put a timeline on your athlete’s mental block.

[10:58] Get her comfortable with the skills that she can do.

[13:00] What is mindfulness awareness and presence?

[14:23] Celebrate the small wins and successes.

[15:56] What are the underlying causes of mental blocks?


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