The mental block is one of the most frustrating situations for both the athlete and the coach. Blocks are created by many factors. Sometimes a child who is young and has learned very quickly with no fear will realize, “Hey, I can get hurt.” When this happens, they will block. My youngest child learned up to a double full by the time she was six. When she was nine, she hurt her knee and it made her fearful until she realized that by conditioning specific areas, she was building up her body. Once she realized this, the fear of injury became less.
Sometimes fear is caused by lack of progression. In cheerleading it is imperative that we master every step of every skill before moving on to the next skill. Doing so will create consistency in our performance. If the skill is inconsistent, the athlete does not feel the skill the same each time, allowing fear to set in.
At other times, the athlete will fall, become nervous, and block.
Other causes of blocks include being forced to do one more repetition when fatigued and just being a very easily distracted athlete who needs to learn focusing techniques.
Many times there is simply too much outside stress in the athlete’s life. This can include school stress, such as too much pressure to perform well academically. It can include stress from a family conflict, such as a divorce, illness, or from the death of a family member. It can include stress as simple as coming back from a vacation, or a parent or coach pushing a skill too hard. Sometimes it is as simple as this is the only area over which the athlete retains any control in life and they exercise that control whether consciously or unconsciously.
The worst approach to the mental block is, “There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re just stubborn” attitude. The coach says just do it and threatens the athlete with whatever can be held over his/her head. This in itself creates more stress and less production from the athlete’s body. Usually tears result, which helps no one. An athlete with a true mental block cannot force his/her body to perform the skill, so negative comments or humiliation are not effective. The key to unlocking this mental imprisonment is positive repetition with good technique, mind focus training, and positive reinforcement.
One way of handling the mental block in a group setting such as a cheerleading squad is to allow the athlete to do his/her tumbling separate from the group. This prevents intimidation by peers. If you have the luxury of having a person spot the athlete through the practice without the athlete feeling humiliated then the group may work well. It depends both on the team’s approach to its peers struggles and on the coach’s ability to maintain a positive attitude with that athlete. I have seen squads who were so positive with their teammate that group tumbling was a positive experience, but I have also seen it devastate an athlete. I believe one on one is much better with a younger child especially 6-8 years old. Mental blocks seem to become contagious with this age, whether driven by sympathy, empathy or just new awareness of fear.
An important aspect of coaching that will prevent some mental blocks and aid in their recovery is the ability of the coach to find and respect the learning style of each of his/her athletes. This means as coaches we need to be able to teach our skills in at least 7 different ways: linguistic, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, rhythmic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. The following is a short explanation of each learning style: linguistic (one who learns through saying, hearing, and seeing words); mathematical (one who learns through categorizing, classifying and working with patterns, one who is analytical); spatial (one who learns by seeing the whole picture, loves visual pictures); kinesthetic (one who learns by feel or touch, these are always on the move); rhythmic (one who learns by use of music, counting or clapping); interpersonal (one who learns by working with others, loves group learning, social butterflies); and intrapersonal (one who enjoys learning alone – one on one). Our goal as coaches should be to teach each athlete the way they can develop best and reach their maximum potential as athletes and as people. We are creating masterpieces one piece at a time, and we must make sure we are careful in our production not to create a flaw in the equipment. It takes ten positive comments to undo the effect of one negative comment. If athletes feel good about their abilities, they will exude confidence but if we tear down their self-esteem with negative, inappropriate comments, then we have athletes who feel they are unable to succeed. This opens them to the formation and/or continuation of a mind block.
Using the following steps to release the athlete from their block also gives them some very important tools to deal with any distraction or obstacle they will face as an adult; therefore, we are helping to develop life skills and good character traits for our athletes, which should be our primary focus in sports. We all have vulnerable areas in our life that could benefit from this system of training. When we can look at ourselves and say it is OK to be less than perfect or to have a flaw we will be a lot farther in our maturation process as a person, coach or athlete. Motivating athletes is an awesome responsibility and we must take it seriously. We must have a plan in our teaching and realize that the child is like a lump of clay. We create an athlete and a person from that lump and in many cases you as a coach are the only positive influence in that athlete’s life. Remember every obstacle can be overcome by proper training.
Learning to increase the efficiency of our minds to see and think about the skill we are performing allows our muscles to yield to the requests we ask of them. When we have a written and visual picture of what our body needs to do, talk positively and breed confidence in ourselves, this will strengthen our nervous system’s connection with the muscles in our body. The truth of the matter is if our body is strong and flexible in every area we have built a body that can always spring back This leaves the mind to do what it does best -move the body in a more powerful way. So conditioning the body from the inside out and training the mind to relax and focus are the most important prerequisites for unlocking this imprisonment we call a “block.”
The steps are as follows:
I call this system “Breaking Free.”
- Admit that it is acceptable to have a mental block and commit yourself to a system for unlocking this imprisonment of your mind.
- Remove all negative input and learn to understand the difference between tense and relaxed tone in your body. You may need to develop a ritual to do before your skills. Practice a relaxation technique by tightening and releasing each body part.
- Commit to a conditioning program at least three times a week. It must be a complete fitness program for all areas of the body: Cardio/Plyometric, Balance/Stability, Upper Body, Lower Body, and Core.
- Script each skill or series of skills using short action verbs to tell your body what to do. This trains your mind to focus on the skills, not on your fears.
- You need to do 10-20 repetitions of every skill you are blocking on three times a week. Stopping is not allowed. Complete each series whether connected or not. Otherwise, you will train yourself to stop. Make sure technique is good on each skill. You may spot, or if the athlete will do the skill somewhere by herself with good technique, that is fine also.
- Visualize 10-20 times a night the skills you are blocking on before falling asleep using the words from your scripting. Do this each night.
- Journaling- You should get a notebook and record your goals (1 or 2 weeks at a time) and a plan on how to reach these goals. In addition to your goals, you should keep a record of your conditioning and daily thoughts. Depending on how severe the block is you could even set a daily goal. Make all goals reasonable, such as: Perform a skill 3 times without stopping.
- Put a box somewhere that you pass frequently. Put paper and pen beside the box. Every time you pass the box you should write something positive about your tumbling and about yourself. This has even improved school work in several cases.
- The coach, parent and athlete need to agree on a focus word like “stop” so that when the athlete hears the word he/she knows to bring his/her mind back into focus. This can be used at school, home, practice, or competition. You can also have some focal thoughts to pull your mind back into focus like “Relax,” “I am able to do this,” “No big deal, let’s go.” When you are able to control your emotions, your mind is able to direct.
These are examples of application of this system I have experienced.
I have worked with many athletes the last 39 years. In every case where I used this system and the athlete committed to it, it has worked. There are many quitters out there who won’t commit to anything, but those that do will find success.
I coached one girl who used this system. She would do nothing but a round off for 3 years. We worked for approximately 8 months almost daily. She now deals with her fears on a daily basis, but tumbles extremely well, including double full, Arabians, etc.
I coached one girl who wanted to make high school cheerleader. She had to perform a back handspring and a round off back handspring in order to make the team. It took her approximately 6 weeks to make complete recovery from her block. Her mother said her school work even improved.
I have used this system with my own children when we get back from vacations by bringing them into the gym before practice resumes and allowing them to work through their anxiety over tumbling skills.
This system can be a valuable tool in dealing with anxieties an athlete feels in many areas of his/ her life. I encourage you to use it freely and consistently in every area of cheerleading.