Athletes need mental toughness training just as much as they need physical training. I don’t think that’s a shock to many coaches anymore, it’s a given. The best teams are not necessarily the most talented athletes. They have mastered the mental side of the sport.
Mental toughness training is just that, training.
It’s not something that an athlete either has or doesn’t have. It’s not something you can help them achieve overnight. Mental toughness must be taught, encouraged, and practiced. For many cheerleaders and dancers, one of the hardest areas of mental toughness training is learning to overcome mental blocks. A mental block occurs when an athlete is physically incapable of trying a new skill. It’s standing on the mat, frozen in place. It’s a psychological obstacle preventing her from performing a skill.
Many of us have felt it ourselves and we’ve probably all seen it in our athletes at some point: the paralyzing fear that keeps you from trying a new skill. You know your cheerleader is ready to try a standing full; she’s physically capable. But as you stand there on the mat with all the right safety measures in place, trying to instill confidence that you know she’s ready, she can’t bring herself to leave the ground. Your cheerleader has a mental block, and no amount of physical training or encouragement is going to help her go for it.
I’ve personally seen it with hip-hop tricks. Talented dancers get in the right position to start and just sit there, physically incapable of even attempting the skill. I know their heart is racing, their mind is clouded with thoughts of what could go wrong, and their body just won’t do it. I’ve even heard dancers talking to themselves out-loud, trying to be positive. “It’s ok, I’ve got this, I can do this” (which is a great starting strategy) and they will sit in that beginning position and nothing changes…sometimes for 20 – 30 minutes at a time! It’s heartbreaking, frustrating, challenging, and usually pretty infuriating for both of you. Why can’t they just go for it!?!
Part 1: The Roots of Mental Blocks
You’ve tried everything: encouragement, being firm and strict, leaving her alone, standing beside her and spotting, having a peer help, letting it go to try again later… and none of it works. When an athlete has a mental block, you have to understand where it’s coming from before you can help her get passed it. The general cause is the degree of mental toughness and self-confidence. The broad term of mental toughness encompasses a lot of different strengths and psychological skills, but the one in play here is usually low self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy: your expectations for future success
Self-efficacy is similar to self-confidence and related to your expectations for future success. Self-confidence is a broader term. It’s the general believe in your likelihood of succeeding. Self-efficacy is specific to one context or one skill, like public speaking, studying, or dancing.
Why is self-efficacy important?
Self-efficacy is very powerful, and research shows that people with high levels of self-efficacy set higher goals, are more committed to their goals and are not satisfied until they reach their goals. Ultimately, a mentally tough athlete has high self-efficacy and won’t shy away from a challenge. She will face a new skill with confidence in her ability to do it and isn’t capable of quitting. She’s mentally tough and that will translate to her competition day mindset too!
People with high self-efficacy feel like events are under their control. They believe they are capable of executing the skills necessary to achieve their goals. When faced with a challenging new skill, an athlete with high self-efficacy will usually embrace the challenge and go for it. Self-efficacy is not about skills or abilities, and it’s not fixed.
Even the most talented athletes can have low self-efficacy, and that’s usually why it’s frustrating for a coach. You have no doubt she can do it if she would just try! The problem is it’s not about your perception of her ability. It’s all in the athlete’s perception and what she believes she can do with her abilities. If two cheerleaders have the same skill set and are ready to perform in the same situation, they are not likely to have the same performance outcome largely because of their self-efficacy beliefs.
Low self-efficacy and mental blocks
The cheerleader or dancer with low self-efficacy is more likely to develop a mental block and experience anxiety around difficult tasks. They will avoid a challenge because the challenge is seen as a threat. The possibility of falling or failure is too much to overcome. The challenging skill is a threat to their esteem and identity, and prompts doubts about their ability to do it successfully. Each unsuccessful attempt causes demoralizing thoughts that are enduring and make each attempt harder and harder.
So next time you see an athlete suffering from a mental block, consider this. They likely feel a large sense of self-doubt in this specific skill area and need help improving their self-efficacy beliefs. Remember it has nothing to do with their physical talent or even their general self-confidence and achievements. I’ve seen some incredibly confident young women crippled by a mental block.
How do you help them overcome a mental block?
Sometimes the best offense is a good defense, and the best way to help a mental block is to prevent it from ever happening. Simply put, you can prevent a mental block by improving mental toughness in your athletes. Mental toughness grows out of a Mastery Motivational Climate (more on that in an upcoming e-course). That’s all well and good, (and I strongly encourage you to focus your coaching style on creating a positive motivational climate) but what if you are already facing an athlete who has a mental block. You can’t wait months to improve the climate of your team; she needs help with the skill now!
So what is a coach to do?!?
Improving self-efficacy is a bit of a catch-22. The best way to improve self-efficacy beliefs is to experience success, but low self-efficacy often prevents people from trying so they never get to experience success. When an athlete has a mental block, the easiest way to overcome it is just to have a successful attempt. Of course, that’s the whole problem with a mental block, they can’t experience the success because they are paralyzed from even trying the skill! The good news is there is a lot more than a coach can do to increase self-efficacy in his athletes and help them overcome a mental block. There are 4 steps to be exact. More on that in PART 2!