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Expert Q&A: Dr. Caroline Silby, Sports Psychologist

Question: How can I help my athletes overcome mental blocks in tumbling and stunting?

Dr. Caroline Silby, Ph.D.

Answer from sports psychologist Dr. Caroline Silby: Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to solving mental blocks (resulting in not going for a skill). Yet there are some strategies that can accelerate the timeframe in which athletes move past the block and acquire some advanced coping skills in the process:

Keep it Rational It’s important to keep this whole process non-emotional. When an athlete cries and gets upset, offset this with your own positive body language (i.e. relaxed posture), tone of voice (i.e. normal tone) and encouraging non-verbals (i.e. head nod). Be firm and clear about actions he or she can take to meet expectations, but check the emotions at the door.

Create a Systematic Approach - Coaches put themselves in charge in the gym by what they do versus what they say. When we talk too much to children, they are just waiting to see what we will actually do rather than say. Having a systematic approach to navigating mental blocks can provide a structure for all [involved]. Then, when these challenges occur, you both can move into execution mode, saving a lot of discussion and emotion.

Get Them Doing – Instead of directing attention to the unwanted behavior (i.e. not going on skill), identify actions the athlete can execute. Provide opportunities for him or her to build momentum by doing, even if it’s not the skill you want to see completed. You can build a ladder of exercises, drills, etc. that serve as a build-up to completion of the actual skill. When the athlete won’t go, have him or her choose a lower rung on the ladder and execute.

View as an Opportunity – Mental blocks are an opportunity for athletes to navigate fear and learn emotional control. Help them identify positive connections between their own actions and positive results or progression. The coach is responsible for providing athletes with a system and athletes are responsible to the coach for executing that system. When mental blocks occur, both of those areas tend to break down. Being present and “in it” with athletes creates a balanced sharing of responsibility.

Take the Pressure Off – You can accomplish this by minimizing the amount of time you allow athletes to work on the skill. This can help athletes tap into their own desires for doing the skill rather than relying on you to motivate or scare them into doing it.

State Intentions – Have the athlete state one action she commits to executing that puts her in control of the skill (i.e. breathing, shoulders down, etc.). Prior to the skill attempt, have her state out loud the intention. For example, “I point my toes” or “I breathe on the swing.”

Encourage Use Of Imagery – Mental blocks create negative feelings and reactions linked to the skill. Have the athlete create a fantasy story around successful execution of the skill including where she could be, sounds she hears, aromas she smells, textures she touches, etc. When she attempts the skill, she steps into the story providing an opportunity for her to experience new feelings and reactions surrounding the skill.

Keep Questions/Discussion to a Minimum – Trying to engage athletes in discussion about why they will not do a skill is typically ineffective. Minimize use of questions as this leads to more thought and discussion preventing momentum from being built.

Interrupt the Pattern – Have the athlete work on the desired skill in sets of three attempts. Regardless of whether athlete goes for the skill, after 3 attempts, interrupt the pattern with positive action (deep breath, another skill, timers, tense and release, body language check, etc.), then start again.

Inform Parents – Communicate system/game plan to parents so that all adults are in charge and supporting the systematic approach. This allows parents the opportunity to support at home what you are doing in the gym. If parents have questions, invite them to speak with you.

Caroline Silby, Ph.D. is an expert on the development of adolescent athletes and has served as adjunct faculty at American University for 12 years. She holds a Doctorate and Master Degree of Sports Psychology from the University of Virginia and authored Games Girls Play: Understanding and Guiding Young Female Athletes (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and was contributing author to Sports Secrets and Spirit Stuff (American Girl Company, 2006). She has worked with 2 Olympic Gold Medalists, 11 Olympians, 3 World Champions, 12 National Champions, and hundreds of Division I student-athletes, coaches and teams.

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