I started tumbling when I was pretty young and loved it! My tumbling quickly turned into hitting the vault and the bars and I was excelling quickly. Coaches took notice and were ready to start my Olympic training untill…Cortnee White
One day out of nowhere I was rounding off into a back handspring like every day before, when I just froze and fell straight on my butt. With this weird feeling of confusion I got back up and tried again, but this time I didn’t fall I didn’t even move. I was frozen.
I had thrown back handsprings all the time without a thought and now I couldn’t. I tried and tried to just do it but, I was stopping every time. I now couldn’t even do it on my trampoline at home. This flip I had done a million times now became scary, frustrating, and was frustrating for others. I could see and feel the look of disappointment on my coaches, parents, and peer’s face. I eventually got to the point of being able to do it but only on and off. At some point, I didn’t really care for gymnastics anymore and it became more of a hassle than fun and I moved on to the next sport. The saddest part is that this is the clearest memory of gymnastics I have. My mental block was what I remember.
What is a Mental Block?
Psychological blocking which is also normally called a mental block is the inability to perform a skill that an athlete previously performed with no problems. Athletes report feeling stuck, frozen, blank, or they feel like their brain is fogged.
It can spread! It generalizes backwards within a sequence of skills. So take my story for example, the blocking started on the back handspring, but can quickly spread to the round-off itself.
Why is it Happening?
Sports like gymnastics and diving are completely unnatural for our body to perform and our brain doesn’t like it either. Flying and twisting through the air puts our brain on high alert! Its job is to protect us and look for threats, and there can be a lot of threats. If we are under stress, fearful, worried, anxious, or injured our brain essentially shuts us down. Our brain is telling us hey, you got a lot going on and I cannot allow you to do something dangerous right now.
A lot of times the athlete is just unable to perform the skill or has moved too fast into a higher-level skill. This can be fear, self-confidence issues, or mechanical issues. Those blocks can usually be resolved by slowing down and going back to basics.
The most common block that I usually see is surrounded by an injury or seeing others be injured. Injuries are trauma both to the body and the mind. I like to put it as we hold onto pain memories. With pain memories we don’t forget what happened when we fell, we over-rotated, or saw someone do the same. Like I stated before our brain is now in full protective mode, it does not want you to be hurt again. From those injuries, we also produce stress and anxiety. Our thoughts become consumed with trying to never let it happen again, worrying about every little movement or placement. We might still feel pain and hesitate on going full out, causing the block to have a stronger hold on us. We start to block and freeze because there are a lot of unresolved fears.
The amygdala (emotional response center) is calling in all the stops to keep you safe.
I am scared but not scared of the skill.
Fear and being scared is a stressful and anxious emotion that ignites our blocks. Most gymnasts explain the fear they have with blocks as “I am scared but not scared of the skill”. We usually assume that if an athlete is blocking it is because they are doing a really hard and complicated skill that scares them. While this can be true it is not always the case. As stated above blocks occur on skills that have been done before, usually skills that were quite easy originally. The fear they feel can be stemming from the thought of injury because they are overthinking and putting too much attention on small mechanics causing disruptions. They can fear not being able to do the skill because of how easy it is and the embarrassment and shame that can happen. They can be scared due to dissociating from themselves and the movement and not having body awareness.
Whether it is stress from outside the gym, inside, or a combination of both, the longer it builds the more the athlete tends to make negative attributions about their ability and about themselves. This can drive avoidance of the movement or sport, shame, anger, and feelings of failure. Mental blocks happen, and they happen a lot. You or your athlete are not alone in the burden a mental block can place on you. With some knowledge and understanding the block can be defeated!
It is very important not only physically but mentally that we address mental blocks early on and learn appropriate skills that can help ease the process.
Mental blocks can be defeated, with the right tools and some time we can get you back doing what you love.-Cort