It is during high-level competitions that the frequency of mental blocks and fear intensifies and it seems like the brain explodes as neurological activity increases. The mind races with stressful thoughts and believes no solution for change exists. Lack of confidence increases and it appears the mind is out of control.
When anxiety is triggered, it sends messages to the brain and body, and the hormone cortisol is released. Muscles tighten up, delivering a mechanical style of movement. Doubt and hesitation increase. Less agility, fluidity and accuracy occur in movement. Often, no matter how hard an athlete tries, they can’t seem to execute their skills as they did before. What used to be easy, now seems difficult.
If physical problems continue, then a mental block may become established. Thinking turns negative, and self-talk becomes harmful, with comments such as ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do this? I’m such an idiot. I’m not good enough. I’ll never get this right!” Mental blocks are a common problem.
During a mental block, the brain works harder to figure out how to overcome anxiety. Performers lose a sense of perspective and become consumed with solving the perceived decline in ability. This pattern of over-thinking, in turn, creates more moments of indecision and lack of action. A cycle is developed that repeats: anxiety – negative thinking – loss of physical ability – overthinking – anxiety – negative thinking – loss of physical ability – overthinking.
The first step to break the cycle is focusing the brain on what is within an athlete’s control. One effective tool used by the Positive Coaching Alliance follows the acronym ELM (effort, learning, and mistakes are okay). This tells the brain to focuss on a process, rather than an outcome.
- Effort: measuring success based on work ethic and giving best effort in practices and games
- Learning: emphasizing improvement and mastering skills and game plans leads to performing better under pressure
- Mistakes are okay: athletes that are not afraid to mess up and make mistakes tend to perform at a higher level when under pressure.
The second step to breaking a mental block is changing the nature of self-talk. Given the role of a coach or parent, athletes often hear what not to do in correction. When anxiety and lack of confidence increase, better mindsets focus on what to do. For example, it’s better for self-talk in the brain to think, “swing smooth and relaxed” than “don’t strike out”.
Laughter relaxes the brain and body, releasing a different set of chemicals. Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens relates an experience he had as a Little League pitcher when his coach/dad called a timeout during a high-pressure situation. Nervous as his dad walked to the mound, he did not expect the question his dad asked him: “Did you feed the dog today?.” Stevens said the moment grounded him back in the reality of just playing the game and having fun, instead of the pressure of the game.
Anne “Kip” Watson, MA, LPC, CHPC is a sports psychology professional, therapist, certified high-performance coach, and radio talk show host. For more information, call 214-543-4108 or visit BrainCodeCorp.com.