Overcoming Mental Blocks

Mental blocks are a phenomenon that happen when a performer appears to go blank and forget movements that they have consistently trained and mastered and should know how to complete.  The performer can appear to freeze or may instinctively change the movement they were planning to do.  Performers experiencing a mental block will often state that they feel like they physically cannot complete the specific movement or skill, even if they want to.  Mental blocks are often isolated to one specific skill or part of a skill, whilst other aspects of performance can remain intact. Mental blocks often don’t make logical sense and as a result, a mental block is often a very frustrating experience for a performer.

Why do mental blocks occur?

Mental blocks can occur as a result of a trauma, such as a serious injury, a scare, such as almost falling off the high beam in gymnastics, witnessing another performer receive a serious injury, or can occur over time as a result of a specific, often subconscious belief, for example, fear of failure, fear of letting others down, fear of success, lack of confidence in self and ability to do the skill or lack of trust in coaching staff.  Sometimes a belief can develop in response to an innocent statement made in the vicinity of the performer, such as, “this sport is so dangerous”, or “someone is going to be killed on this track/equipment”.

In response to this experience of trauma or subconscious belief, the brain develops a fear response that becomes linked with a particular movement or skill.  The emotional and fast part of the brain, which takes over in fear situations, then subconsciously associates any situation that looks like, sounds like, feels like the traumatic or feared event, with a threat to survival and immediately activates the fear response, which is the body’s alarm system.  The logical and slow part of the brain, which knows that the performer should still be able to perform the skill, is shut down by the emotional part of the brain as part of the fear response, because of the need to act quickly to protect the body and preserve survival.  The body then goes into fight, flight or freeze mode and performance is compromised and in some cases not possible.  Over time, this becomes a learned response, sometimes continuing after the beliefs have changed.

How do you overcome a mental block?

The first step to overcoming a mental block is to identify the underlying cause.  This can be done through discussions with a sport psychologist as it is not always easy to identify and may be a combination of factors.

Once the cause is identified and the fear is challenged or accepted, it is important to implement skills that specifically change the learned response of the brain to the situation in which the mental block happens.  The best way to do this is to intentionally engage the logical part of the brain to avoid the activation of the fear response.  Strategies such as imagery, key words, breathing, focus, attention training, self-talk play a part in this process.  This takes practice to develop new patterns of thinking and responding and to train a new learned response to the same situations that developed the fear response.  Previous methods have attempted to train out the mental block behaviour through repetition, however, this method only strengthens the fear response, training the brain to continue to respond out of fear.

In short, mental blocks are a complex experience that can affect performers from all different competence levels.  Mental blocks require a disciplined approach to the reflection and understanding of their cause.  This approach in addition to the retraining of your brain’s habits will give you the best chance of returning to performing with mental freedom.