How to overcome mental blocks and anxiety in competition

[Edited transcript below]

Q: how can I get over a mental block that happens only during competition?

First, I would challenge this athlete. Is this a real mental block? If you are able to perform your skill in practice but struggle in competition, then it is not a true mental block. It sounds like this has more to do with competition anxiety or those pre-performance jitters.

I am going to address competition anxiety. Mental blocks happen because of a build up of pressure and fear. Even if you think about challenging skills that feel like a block, even if it’s not, there is still a lot of fear around the skill. 

If you don’t feel totally safe doing this skill, know that you are not alone. 

If you think about competition and if you’re someone who has experienced mental blocks, which I assume this athlete has, because they mentioned ‘mental block’, then you’re already someone who has those more perfectionist beliefs, those more perfectionist tendencies.

You care about doing a really good job. You want things to look and feel a certain way. You don’t want to let anybody down. You don’t want to disappoint anybody.  And in competition the pressure you feel can be absolutely overwhelming and get in the way of you performing skills you can easily do in practice. 

What is a mental block?

A true mental block is when you have a skill, you’ve mastered it physically, and you’ve done it by yourself on several surfaces for a period of time, but can no longer perform the skill. That is a true mental block. It’s when you have trained and practiced the skill so much that you have the strength, technique, and experience to perform the skill without a ton of direction. 

You have reached elite status and your body knows how to do the skill without telling it what to do. You’ve had it for several weeks, months, or longer and have performed the skill on several different surfaces. And then, your body gets to a point where no matter how bad you want to or try to force yourself, you are unable to make your body perform the skill. 

If you’ve mastered a skill on the tumbletrak, but you can’t do it on the floor yet, that is not a mental block. You’re still learning. You’re still building up your trust. That’s fine. The hesitation you feel is just nervousness and anticipation. 

The jitters that happen before you go and do a skill by yourself, that’s just normal. That’s just your body saying, “Hey, we’re doing something new. It’s a little scary so just pay attention and be careful.” Fear and overthinking do not necessarily mean you are experiencing a mental block. 

[The Cheer Kin] I think a lot of athletes think that just because they’re scared to try it on the floor for the first time, that that’s a mental block. And I would have referred to it as that, too, when I was cheering. 

[Mandy] You can say that you’ve got a mental block when you don’t want to clean your room. If you are stuck on a homework assignment you can say you are blocking on it but the truth is that you are really just procrastinating and don’t want to do it. At the end of the day it is terminology but there is a cost to using ‘mental block’ when not necessary. 

coaches, STOP SAYING HIT ZERO!

Let me take a moment to address coaches, going into competition. This is my message for coaches, please stop saying hit zero. It drives me crazy, and there’s so many teams do it.

When you say hit zero, you’re literally telling these athletes that their goal for today is to not to make any mistakes. And so you’re focusing your athletes attention on something that is impossible to do, first of all. And you’re focusing their attention on what they don’t want to happen as opposed to what they do want to do.

So it’s like, if you don’t want to make any mistakes, what do you want to do? Well, we want to be perfect. It’s like, that’s still not helpful, right. But it’s a little better. It’s like, okay, well, what are those things that you can do when you’re going into the competition or going into the routine that are going to help you do a really good job?

What’s going to put you in the best possible position to achieve the outcome you want not do the outcome, get the first, whatever that expectation is. Otherwise, You failed, that’s not helpful. 

How do you overcome competition anxiety and blocks?

So, for competition, there’s so much pressure for these athletes. There’s a lot of build up of anxiety and fear, and there’s several ways that that can be addressed.

But I would say for this athlete in particular, when there is a history, it sounds like, of a challenge with a specific tumbling pass, think about one thing that’s helpful for the actual tumbling pass in the routine and let everything else go. So maybe it’s like, um, I’m going to really pay attention to that first step, or maybe it’s just run, run hurdle.

That’s what you think about. Or run hard, or maybe you even just visualize the line from where you’re starting to where you’re going to land at the end of the mat, and that’s what you think about. So think about something that’s very simple, but that’s related to the skill, and accept that you do not have to be perfect.

It’s okay if you make a mistake. Let go of that pressure a little bit and understand that going into competition, those nerves that you feel are actually a good thing. Those are butterflies telling you that you’re about to do something big, and that’s really awesome.

And so embracing that and don’t use that as a sign of, oh, something bad is probably going to happen. Right. So get excited about what could happen, the possibilities, all the good stuff. 

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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