How to Overcome a Mental Block

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Mental blocks can come in many forms, but they all get fueled by the thoughts we think. Writers get “writer’s block”, actors get “stage fright”, and gymnasts (as well as other athletes) can develop an irrational fear about one specific trick or movement – like doing back handsprings on floor or beam, or doing release moves on the high bar or uneven bars. Depending on the skill, some may argue that fear is very rational, but it is still a mental game whether the fears are rational or not.

I have often been asked about how to overcome mental blocks by gymnasts or their concerned parents, so I thought I would write a thorough post about the subject here that I can refer to.

Fear is a very powerful emotion that takes a little while to overcome. On the emotional scale where feeling empowered is at the top (love, joy, and appreciation are all empowering), fear is at the bottom. The following list of emotions is taken from page 114 of the book Ask and It Is Given (see amazon link to the right):

1. Joy/Appreciation/Empowered/Freedom/Love
2. Passion
3. Enthusiasm/Eagerness/Happiness
4. Positive Expectation/Belief
5. Optimism
6. Hopefulness
7. Contentment
8. Boredom
9. Pessimism
10. Frustration/Irritation/Impatience
11. Overwhelment
12. Disappointment
13. Doubt
14. Worry
15. Blame
16. Discouragement
17. Anger
18. Revenge
19. Hatred/Rage
20. Jealousy
21. Insecurity/Guilt/Unworthiness
22. Fear/Grief/Depression/Despair/Powerlessness

There are over 20 powerful processes detailed in that book which can help you move up the scale of emotions, and I’ve tried most of them successfully. It is a wonderful reference for practical mind games you can play to help you feel better about any subject.

I remember going hiking with my ASU gymnastics teammates about 10 years ago in Oak Creek Canyon. There was a waterfall at one point of the hike and we stopped to take a look. Some of the guys decided it would be fun to jump off the ledge right next to the waterfall (about 30 feet up) into the pool down below.

I looked over the edge and was gripped with fear, so I sat back on a rock several feet away while others jumped off and climbed back up a few times. I gave no indication that I was going to jump, so eventually people stopped egging me on. I sat very still and calmed my breath, focusing my attention on the ground beneath my feet. After awhile I had calmed down and was able to focus on the fact that the others were jumping and safely landing in the water below, and I worked my way up to feeling hopeful that I could do it too.

Waterfall like the one we jumped off in Oak Creek CanyonSo without any warning, when there was no one getting ready to jump or getting out of the water I stood up and quietly walked off the ledge. My teammates were freaking out when I re-emerged because they didn’t expect me to jump and I had barely missed the rocks on the way down (because I didn’t jump I just walked off), but I didn’t care because I had done it and I was done. 🙂

I remember having several other mental blocks with specific gymnastics skills (like every release move I ever tried on high bar!), which are actions to take over and over (not just once with the cliff jumping example above). The most success I had overcoming these mental blocks happened over periods of time when I could “play” with different aspects of the skills (either in my mind or on the equipment) but not really focus on them or bring attention to the fact that I was playing with them. Just like in the example above, I had to remove myself from the situation and work my way up the emotional scale on my own (without the pressure or attention of anyone else) before I could approach it from a different perspective. Then once I felt better about it I would try it on my own (or ask for a spot or a belt if I was ready for that), but without much fanfare.

Regarding specific gymnastics skills (like backwards tumbling, cartwheels, kips, jumping from the low bar to the high bar, release moves, etc.), I believe that when a mental block is developed a break is needed from whatever skill it is to focus on others that are easier and very comfortable. Recently I’ve been skateboarding for fun at a skate park near my house, and it helps me to do something like that which is totally different from my work or family life in order to gain a fresh perspective on whatever I’m stuck on, whether it’s a programming issue or a parenting one.

The length of the break really depends on how long it takes to feel better. In the example above I was able to feel better about jumping off a cliff in a matter of minutes, but when fearful thoughts are practiced over time about a given subject it may take some time to believe different thoughts that are more hopeful and empowering.

It can help to talk about the subject if the people you talk with can help you reach for thoughts that feel better, but it is not necessary and will hinder progress if the person you talk with is frustrated about the situation. When I was training in gymnastics I learned how to block out my coach or teammates at times when I was ready to try something again after taking a break, because they were usually still frustrated about my previous attempts.

About Robert

I competed in gymnastics for 16 years through college at Arizona State University. After 10 years and 5 (now 6) children, I have returned to gymnastics as a competitor. I am a lifetime gymnast. :)
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68 Responses to How to Overcome a Mental Block

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