How to overcome competition mental blocks and anxiety

[Edited transcript below]

Is a mental block the same as overthinking or just being nervous, or is it its whole own thing?

Yes. Okay. So this is where you really have to be careful because there is so much fear in the cheer and gymnastics community around the word, MENTAL BLOCKS. It’s this huge thing that feels really scary so it is really important to recognize the difference between a mental block and just anxiety, fears, and overthinking. 

To athletes dealing with mental blocks, the weight of it feels like a big, scary monster that you carry around on a leash. It casts a shadow on everything and makes the simplest skills feel so hard. It is this burden and weight that is always on your mind to the point of feeling like you must confess, “My name is Alice, and I have a mental block.”

So be very careful with using the term mental block. 

If you are an athlete, coach, or parent who has never experienced a mental block, know that it is a REAL THING getting in the way of the athletes ability to perform skills they know they can do. It is not a lack of effort or will, or laziness. 

What is a true 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. 

Let's talk about fear in tumbling and cheerleading

Fear is not fun at all, but it’s not a bad thing. It is natural and good.  

Fear is proof that your brain is working and doing what it was designed to do, which is keep you safe. But you don’t take that fear and sit in it and say, “Oh, I feel afraid so that means something bad is going to happen.” When you recognize fear happening, don’t attach a negative outcome to that feeling.

That’s just your body doing what it’s designed to do. Instead of being overcome by fear and allowing it to hold you back in your skills, you want to process it in a way that’s helpful and to move through it in a healthy way. 

Is the approach to getting over a mental block and getting over fears and anxieties the same?

Yes it is, because anxiety and fears are symptoms of mental blocks and the source is the same. Athletes who have a lot of fear around different skills, or who avoid doing skills by themselves are more likely to develop mental blocks. Another sign is when an athlete puts a lot of conditions around when and how they can do their skills. “I can do my skill in my ‘comfort spot’ on a certain mat with a certain coach only on Tuesdays if nobody else is watching me.” 

Athletes who are very anxious, nervous, fearful, and more perfectionist are more likely to develop true mental blocks in the long term because they do have so much overthinking and pressure around the skill. They tend to overcontrol their skills and struggle with confidence and trust which are precursors to mental blocks. 

Those are the things that cause mental blocks to develop, so I would take the same approach as athletes dealing with mental blocks. But obviously, if you have a true mental block, it’s a little bit of a more intensive process, so there’s a lot more that goes into it, but a very similar approach.

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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