mental block

The challenge to overcome mental blocks can only be surpassed with mental toughness training. Training that takes place a little bit at a time every day, just as you would train to improve your jumps or balance. You have to work at it consistently. Improving mental toughness starts with a positive motivational climate as the foundation. Once you have that in place, there are 4 steps to helping an athlete overcome a mental block.

Before you keep going…Don’t miss out on Part 1: Why do Athletes Get Mental Blocks? 

Step 1 to Overcome Mental Blocks: Acknowledge the block

One of the hardest things for an athlete is to acknowledge she is experiencing a mental block. She will often want to just ‘push through’ or say something like, “it’s ok I’ll get it eventually” and then be forced to stop trying because she can’t even get through one attempt. The first thing you can do as a coach is to help your athletes acknowledge that the reason they can’t practice the skill successfully is due to a mental block and not a physical one. As challenging as it is, a mentally tough athlete has to:

Embrace the fear of failure

Acknowledge the challenge in front of you

Attack the fear head-on

Understand it’s going to take work

Put in the work

Only then will they overcome their mental block and successfully tackle the skill.

Step 2 to Overcome Mental Blocks: Improve self-talk

We all get in our own head sometimes. We talk ourselves out of trying something scary or talk ourselves into that 3rd cookie staring at us from the kitchen counter. (Maybe that’s just me, cookies are my weakness!) What we say to ourselves, or our self-talk, has a lot of power over our actions. When an athlete is facing a mental block, her self-talk is usually grounded in negative statements that start with “What if…” We think things like, “What if I fall?”     “What if I make a fool of myself in front everyone?” “I could get hurt and then I’ll let everyone down.” “What if I can’t do it?”  “I’m not good enough.”

You can control your self-talk

Coach, your job is to help your athletes turn those negative self-talk statements into something different. What you say and how you react to their mental block is very powerful; what you say to them becomes their inner voice.  Help them change that inner voice so rather than “What if…” have them say “So what.” So what if I fall, there’s a mat/spotter. So what if I make a fool of myself, they’re my teammates and will pick me back up. So what if I can’t do it. I just can’t do it NOW but I will be able to with practice.

Self-talk is an internal process, so you don’t usually hear what an athlete is saying to herself as she stands frozen on the mat unable to try the skill. But if you know your athletes, you know their faces when they are over thinking things. You know their body language when they aren’t confident. Stop and ask them what they are thinking. If you have created a positive motivational climate on the team, they will be comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. Recognize the negative “What if” type statement and help them rephrase into a “So what” statement. Then they have to repeat it over and over and over. It takes time and persistence, but don’t let them give up.

confidence journal

Self-talk is a habit, and it takes time to change it in order to overcome mental blocks. If they have a mental block, they are already in the habit of negative self-talk and habits are not easy to change (For more information on habits, check this out. It takes work, repetition, reminders, and discipline but if an athlete can change how she talks to herself, she’s on her way to overcoming that crippling mental block.

Step 3 to Overcome Mental Blocks: Reduce the challenge

Depending on what skill your dancer is struggling with, anything you can do to help reduce the physical skill demands and make it easier so she can baby-step her way into the skill can help dramatically. Things like practicing on a trampoline or landing in a foam pit, are all great traditional ways to reduce the challenge in front of them. Dancers who are afraid of new hip-hop tricks can try easier versions of the skill, practice with a spot, practice on a mat, practice with only half a turn instead of a full turn etc. Anything to reduce the physical demands of a task will allow an athlete to feel less scared and more able to tackle the challenge.

Combine this with positive self-talk statements like: “So what if I fall, I’m on a mat.” “So what if I can’t do it, I’ll get it with practice.” These statements help an athlete overcome mental blocks and start attempting the skill. Then you slowly increase the demands as much as possible until the athlete is able to do the whole skill.

Step 4 to Overcome Mental Blocks: Seek outside help

There is nothing wrong with asking for a little guidance and help. A mental block can be serious and so can the work it takes to overcome it. The roots of mental blocks lie in negative emotional reactions (worry and fear for example) and then a vicious cycle starts with a drop in self-esteem and confidence. The best thing for an athlete is a new outlook, some understanding, and coping strategies which may be above and beyond your role as a coach. If so, you can always work with me. I’m here for you and your athletes so that everyone can find their best possible self.

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