What can coaches or teammates do to help athletes overcome a mental block?

[Edited transcript below]

What can coaches or teammates do to help athletes get over their mental block?

There’s a lot that they can do but first, let’s talk about what not to do. 

What should coaches or teammates stop doing to athletes with mental blocks?

So, athletes who are dealing with mental blocks, they’re struggling with their confidence, they are struggling with feeling like they’re good enough. A lot of times with mental blocks, it’s not just, “I have a mental block that I’m working through on my back handspring”,

It’s “I’m not a good tumbler. I’m not a good cheerleader. I’m letting my team down.” Sometimes it gets as big as “I’m not a good person.” So there’s this thing that happens with mental blocks that makes it so much bigger than one specific skill. It bleeds over into other areas.

So, as a coach or a teammate, something that you can do to really support your athletes who are dealing with mental blocks is really encouraging them and not just by saying “You Got This!” “Go For It!” “Just Do It!” 

When you say these well-intentioned phrases, athletes with mental blocks misinterpret it because they’re looking at that situation from their lens.

Remember, mental blocks happen as a result of a build-up of anxiety and fear from how they’re processing the situations they’re in, and they’re doing it in an unhelpful way. So when you say things like “do it” “go for it” “you got it” they will hear “You should have this already. Why are you struggling on this? Why aren’t you doing this?” 

The most common phrases of encouragement actually make things worse. It causes them to feel defeated and makes things harder. It actually fuels their block. 

Why do athletes shut-down when others are trying to encourage them?

So, if you’ve ever, as a coach, tried to motivate an athlete to push through a mental block, and then the tears come, or they just shut down out of nowhere? You were just trying to encourage and push them because you know how capable they are but it made things worse and you just do not understand why. 

The reason is because what you said and what they heard were 2 totally different things. Athletes process what you say and do from their lens. An athlete dealing with a mental block has a lens of “I am not where I should be” so they assume others feel the same way. So you said “Just throw it” but they heard “If you don’t do it now, I will be upset and question if you are good enough to be on this team.”

How to encourage struggling athletes without making things worse

Instead of focusing on the result, outcome, or doing the skill, appreciate their effort and their progress. Let them know how much you believe in them as a cheerleader, tumbler, and awesome human. 

Say things like “Oh my goodness, I just saw you work through five reps on your own, That is amazing!” “Your legs are so powerful, “What an amazing job you’re doing today”, or, “I’m so glad you’re on this team. You’re a valuable part of this team. I can’t imagine this team without you.”

Making them feel good as a person, building them up, and helping them see the little ways that they’re doing a really good job will help build up their confidence, as opposed to judging themselves by “did I do this skill, yes or no?”

[Deryn] Those are good ones because I think everyone, their go to encouraging statement is like, “you got it, you can do it,” and it’s not helpful. 

It’s well intentioned, but a great teammate is able to step into the shoes of others and offer encouragement in a helpful way. 

One way to do that is understand that mental blocks are like a big, scary monster that casts a shadow on every effort. It becomes their lens. They don’t feel like they’re where they’re supposed to be, and so they assume that’s how everybody else feels. So just knowing that when you’re having a conversation or you’re interacting with someone dealing with a challenge or a mental block in a skill can be super helpful. 

Know that they are coming from a place where they don’t feel like they’re where they’re supposed to be, so really try to build them up as a person, reward their effort,  and be encouraging about who they are, not necessarily related to doing the skill.

The less attention we can give to the whole skill, the better, because there’s already way too much pressure and attention on the big skill. Like doing it, getting over it for good. It’s too much.

That's it! Now it's your turn.

Decide right now one way that you will use what you learned in this training to try something new this week at practice. What did you learn in this training that stood out to you? What will you do differently at practice this week to apply what you learned? I would love to support you and offer you a little accountability, so share that with us in the comments below. 

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Until next time, remember that a mental block is simply a challenge you are working through. You are strong, can do hard things, and have totally got this!

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