everactiv girl ambassador Lara loves swimming, cycling, surf lifesaving and, most of all gymnastics. This year she has been facing the challenge of having a mental block during one of her moves on the beam. This is a common problem faced by lots of athletes in lots of different sports. Lara has written this blog about her experience and what helped her to overcome the mental block
"Earlier this year I experienced what’s known in gymnastics as a ‘mental block’. I’d recently learned a new skill, a flick on beam and I had it pretty much nailed. In one session I had a little fall whilst doing the flick, I didn’t really hurt myself but I was a bit spooked. Over the next few sessions I carried on but I felt a bit more nervous each time.
This was just before I went on holiday, I had 9 days off gym so I didn’t do any beam work. When I came back to gym I realised I couldn’t do the flick anymore, I felt I knew how to do it but my brain wouldn’t let me do the move. Every time I tried I felt hot and uncomfortable until I was dreading coming to gym. I was getting really upset and even thought about quitting.
I spoke to my coaches and they decided the best way to deal with it was to take the move out of my routine altogether while I got my confidence back. I think this was the best approach, I stopped thinking about it altogether while I prepared for my next competition. After a few months we decided to try again and I started right back at the beginning. First I tried on the training beam, then moved to mid beam until finally today I did it again on high beam.
There are lots of ways to get over the mental block and I tried them all, including: visualisation (imagining it in my head), doing it with support and even trying to think about nothing while I was doing it but for me the best approach was to forget about it for a bit and then start back at the beginning.
I’m loving gym again now and looking forward to my next competition so I can show off my new skill."
We asked sports psychologist Amanda Pitkethly to give us some comments and advice on mental blocks using Lara's story.
Dealing with the ‘mental block’
Hello Lara! What happened to you is quite common for athletes or performers who need to get it right whilst under pressure, such as a flick on a beam. Firstly, your brain was trying to protect you by stopping you doing that again, it felt there was some reasonable threat and it was really trying to keep you safe, which is nice to know! But we don’t really need it to protect us from something like that. But try telling the very old and protective part of your brain that! So every time you tried to repeat the move, your brain made you worry and feel bad. This takes up the space in your brain that you need to perform the skill and so you end up not being able to do it. I have over simplified this but from the way you have written about your experience I think you will understand.
You are right, visualisation or mental rehearsal works very well as long as you are doing it correctly, practicing it regularly, and incorporating it into your usual routine. You see our mind likes to have something to do, and if we don’t give it something productive it will find something, and often this can be a worry about one thing or another. So, by practising visualisation we are giving our brain more of the right things to think about.
You also mentioned ‘trying to think about nothing while I was doing it’, and this is actually very hard to do, because really what often happens is that you might actually be trying NOT to think about the problem. Do this for me now, try NOT to think about a blue tree. Really, really try NOT to … what are you thinking about now? Yes, that blue tree! However, you can become an expert at clearing your mind and focusing on the right things to get it in that performance head space. That space where all your well learned skills live and from here they flow out of you effortlessly. You have had that sensation, right? Where everything works perfectly? Well, heart rate variability biofeedback (essentially this is rhythmic breathing training/focussed attention meditation) is a skill you can incorporate into your training regime. BUT, just like any other skill, practice makes perfect. Here are some apps that you may find useful:
So, you say the thing that worked was to ‘forget about it for a bit and then start back at the beginning’, and it is great that you found a strategy that worked, and actually taking the time off from it would have meant that your brain didn’t have to make you feel ill to protect you as often and eventually this faded. But I want you to think about what I have said above, there are skills that you can learn that will help your performance to become more reliable, more constant and so less likely to have to take time away from having fun learning new gymnastic skills. The mental skills I have mentioned will help to strengthen your nervous system, and develop confidence and concentration. But also, remember that part of your brain that really wants to protect you? Well learning the skills I describe above give your brain something to do, positive strategies instead of resorting to making you feel terrible and result in the ‘mental block’ you experienced.
I’m so glad to hear that you are back training but most of all enjoying what you are doing again! But remember, developing your mental tool box will mean that you will eventually become more confident and consistent in your performance, you will be able to trust yourself when you perform more and more complex skills, and the bonus is that developing your mental skills will help you in other areas too, like school work!
For more articles on sports psychology and how to get the most out of your training check out our blog page.
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