It’s frustrating isn’t it?
At one point you were fearless; getting new tumbling skills almost every other week, and it seemed that nothing could stop you.
And then one day it happened – you went to do a tumbling pass you’ve done a hundred times before, but your brain simply refused to let your body do its thing.
You froze coming out of a simple round off. And no matter how many times you tried, you just couldn’t convince yourself to do something you’ve been doing forever.
Your coaches were yelling at you to “just do it” and your friends were all confused, because they’ve seen you do that exact skill countless times before. What the heck is going on?
Well, it seems you’ve encountered a mental block.
And I know you’ve heard the horror stories: How it can be career-ending (especially for tumblers), how it could take years before you’re back to “normal,” how it can eat away at your confidence, and so on.
You’ve probably also asked yourself things like, “Will I ever recover?”, “If so, how long will it take?”, “Is my spot on the team safe?”, “What if I get kicked out?”
Well today, I’m here to tell you that regardless of how bad your block is, it can be overcome. Thousands of athletes have done it, and I’m confident that you can too. In fact, my personal success rate when it comes to helping defeat mental blocks is 100%, and today I’ll show you the exact formula I use to make this happen. Below is an example of what happens when this formula is applied properly:
In return, I only ask the following three things:
1. That you take the time to really understand the information in this article. Don’t skim or speed-read through it just because it’s a bit long and detailed.
2. That you have patience; I said I’d help you defeat your mental block, I didn’t say it would be overnight.
Look, I’m as competitive a person as they come – just ask my own athletes. They know that whether we’re playing dodgeball or connect 4, I’ll show them no mercy. I play to win, baby. But when it comes to mental blocks, I would never wish that upon my worst enemy, so let’s help put an end to them. Can you help me do that?
Great, then let’s begin by understanding mental blocks at a deeper level.
It’s All About Pain & Survival
Here’s a little secret: your mental block is not something that recently popped up, nor does it mean that you’re suffering from some type of psychological condition. In fact, if you’re currently suffering from a mental block (or had one before), it means you’re functioning normally!
It’s a good sign.
Because it means your brain’s survival mechanism is alive and well. Think about this for a second: have you ever had a mental block about walking? No?
How about running? Ever just freeze up during a sprint? Didn’t think so.
Ok how about something a little more advanced, like sitting down? Ever look at a chair and as you went to put your butt on it, your brain went “NOPE! not gonna happen, too freaky!”
I’m guessing the answer to that is a definite no as well. But do you know the reason why?
It’s because inside your brain, those activities aren’t associated with a survival mechanism that kicks in to keep you alive. But the motor pattern of a back tuck (or whatever tumbling skill you’re have trouble with) definitely is.
Regardless of how trivial you think a back tuck is (I’ve done thousands of them in my time), there is still a part of the brain that knows it’s a dangerous maneuver. It knows that regardless of how good and competent you are, there’s a slight chance you’ll land on your face which could lead to serious injury or death.
And thus, it will stop you from doing it the first chance it gets. Don’t believe me? Ask a complete stranger to do a back tuck and see what happens – 99% of the time, even if they’re really committed, their brain will stop them, and they’ll spaz out.
If you’re fortunate enough to remember you first few back tuck lessons, then you know exactly the feeling I’m referring to. So don’t beat yourself up or start hating your body for your mental block. It’s there to protect you. Tumbling is a completely new and unnatural way of movement. A hundred thousand years from now, if we keep tumbling, maybe our neurology will become as comfortable with it as walking, but until that happens, we have to deal with our ancient mental barriers.
“when it comes to mental blocks, I would never wish that upon my worst enemy” (Tweet This)
Now the obvious question is, “If everyone has these survival mechanisms, why do they suddenly kick in at random for one person, but not for another?”
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. The reason mental blocks kick in is due to a trigger – something has to have happened which convinced your brain that if you do XYZ skill, it will result in pain and suffering.
And trust me, your body will do a lot of crazy things to avoid pain and suffering. Here’s a list of the 6 most common triggers:
1. Bailing and/or Getting Hurt
If you’ve never hurt yourself on a tuck before, but suffer your first fall, this can be a powerful trigger which would make your brain go: “Ok, so I thought this inversion was safe, but now I know it’s not, so there’s no way I’m letting you try it again.” And now you’re tasked with convincing yourself that it was just a freak accident, and that back tucks are safe.
This is why if you’re learning something for the first time, it is absolutely essential that you take all the safety precautions necessary to prevent yourself from getting hurt – not only for your physical health, but your mental health as well.
2. Being Dropped During A Spot
If you’re an athlete, this is almost never your fault. Coaches, this is why you never spot a skill unless you’re 100% certain you can save them. This trigger shares a lot of similarities with the first one, but with the added consequence of a loss in trust.
3. Emotional Pressure
Coaches: saying things like “just do it or you’re off the team!” is fine once in a while – fear of loss is definitely a strong motivator – but when used often, the pressure can lead to athletes developing blocks.
Athletes: it’s all well and good that you want to motivate your teammates, but if you’re putting too much pressure on them (especially outside of the gym) you’re just adding to the problem, instead of being the solution.
Here’s how: When someone is under a lot of pressure, their focus starts to shift inward. Instead of focusing on relaxing, and letting their body do the motions they’ve done thousands of times already, they start second-guessing their technique and thinking too much. And for elite athletes, thinking is the cancer of doing. There’s even science to back this up; an article was published in a journal of the Association Of Psychological Science, which looked at why paying too much attention to what you’re about to do can decrease performance. Here’s what one of the researchers had to say:
“We think when you’re under pressure, that your attention goes inward naturally. Suddenly it means so much, you want to make sure everything’s working properly,” says Rob Gray, of the University of Birmingham, the author of the new article. “And that is exactly when things go wrong. Something about paying attention to what you’re doing makes it not work right.“
4. Being Rusty
Sometimes not doing something for a long time can trigger blocks because you feel inadequate. At one point I had a triple-full from floor into resi pit, but if I were to try it now, there’s not a chance in hell my brain will let me go for it. I’ll have to work my way back using progressions, and making sure I stay safe.
5. Observational Fear
Let’s say you just learnt a layout. Now, you’re slightly scared of it since it’s new to you, but that’s ok because you know that the more you practice, the more it’ll feel natural and comfortable.
But what happens when the very next day you see your best friend attempt it, and eat mat, really hard? The emotional shock will probably make you reluctant to try it now.
Again, this is normal – it’s how we as humans learned to survive. Back in the day, the caveman that climbed the highest tree, who then fell to his death because he slipped on a branch became an example to others of what not to do.
“…for elite athletes, thinking is the cancer of doing.” (Tweet This)
6. Progressing Too Quickly
This is one of the biggest triggers in my opinion. Remember, tumbling is not natural, so if you don’t obey a smooth progression structure, you’ll pay the price at some point or another. A perfect example of this is when I see athletes attempting fulls before their layouts have been mastered – I’m always like, “what are you thinking?!” The most frustrating part of a progression structure that moves too quickly is when other athletes come to me with bad habits. When I tell them that we must spend a few weeks to un-learn their incorrect technique, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. That’ why my motto is: “I’m here to coach tumbling, not fix tumbling.”
Now of course, there are other triggers which exist, but listing them all will take forever. What’s important is that you take the time to find yours because trigger identification (TI) is the absolute first step in the formula. Speaking of the formula, let’s take a quick look at it:
As you can see, nowhere in the formula have I listed an element of time – that’s because the time it takes, is the time it takes. Is it possible to remove a mental block 2 weeks before a competition? Yes. Can it take a month or two? Yes. You have to be willing to ignore time, and instead focus on the process.
Oddly enough, when you shift your focus in this way, the time it takes to overcome your mental block decreases dramatically! Let’s move on to the next part of the formula…
PV (Perfect Visualization)
I’ve already talked about the benefits (and the science) of perfect visualization in this article, so I’d suggest you read up on it if you haven’t. For now, just know that you need to do about 20-30 repetitions of your tumbling pass in your head, perfectly. This can be before your practice, after your practice, before bed time, whenever.
So for example: if a RO > BHS > BT (back tuck) is your issue, then imagine yourself doing this pass perfectly both from the first and third person perspective. If you’ve forgotten what a perfect execution of this pass looks like, find a video on YouTube then imagine yourself as that person. Visualization strengthens the neurological connections inside the brain, this has been proven.
3D (Three Drills That Mimic Your Skill)
Let’s say that a RO > BHS is what you’re having problems with. Which three drills could you use, that would mimic this entire pass? Well one would be a RO jump back onto a crash mat, which is at least hip height. Another would be a rebound jump BHS over a Boulder (or any other BHS trainer). Another drill could be handstand snap down to jump back.
There are many more to choose from, but your job is to ask your coach to help find three drills that are closely related to the skill that’s giving you trouble, then hammer those drills into submission. I’m talking hundreds of reps for each, until you can do them perfectly, without thinking. Look, just because your brain is blocking you from doing the entire motion of a BHS, doesn’t mean you can’t strengthen the motor patterns that are broken up, and very closely related to it.
LCD * Video
LCD in this case stands for Lowest Common Denominator surface. Or in other words, a surface where you’re comfortable doing the skill without a spot. So if doing layout fulls on floor is scaring you half to death, maybe see what happens when you step on rod floor – which offers more bounce.
Still scary? Ok try an Air Trak. Still freaked out? Ok what about a Tumble Trak that goes into a pit? Feel comfortable? Good – that is your LCD surface.
Now again, hammer your skill or pass into submission but keep filming yourself often so you can see yourself progress. You need to visually see yourself getting better – this is a key part of the equation for a reason. Also, be sure to read this article so you have a good understanding of all the surface transitions.
Spot * Video
Once you’ve mastered your LCD surface, you’ll internally feel ready to try it somewhere a bit more challenging. This does not mean going straight to floor – all you need is the next step up (assuming your gym has the equipment necessary). Also, be sure to get it filmed so you can see exactly how much (or how little) the spotter is actually doing.
When you realize that rep after rep, your spotter is barely touching you, it will give you internal confidence that will translate well over to the floor. Also, if your spotter is comfortable, ask them to “shadow spot.” This means they’ll be there, but only make contact or step in if needed. Don’t force this on them though – if someone is not comfortable shadow spotting and something goes wrong, it’ll make things worse.
“I’m here to coach tumbling, not fix tumbling” (Tweet This)
This doesn’t necessarily mean on floor. For example, if you needed a spot on the Tumble Trak for a layout full, then trying it by yourself on the same surface should be your next big step. As your surfaces change, you’ll constantly be going back and forth between the last three variables of this formula, until you build up enough confidence to nail it on floor. However, I do have a few tricks to help you with that initial attempt.
First, visualize yourself doing it perfectly right before you go. This is completely opposite of what most athletes are doing when they’re about to try something for their first time, which goes something like: “Oh crap, oh crap! I hope I don’t mess this up and land on my face!”
…which leads to them messing it up. Positive reinforcement has been proven to increase performance, so use it!
Next, get one of those stress balls and squeeze it in your left hand as hard as you possibly can. If you don’t have a stress ball, just clench your left fist as hard as you can for a few seconds. Then try your pass and see how well you perform. Does this sound a bit odd? Well as you know, I always have a good reason behind what I recommend. Let’s dive a bit deeper…
In the Journal Of Experimental Psychology, there was an excellent study which took three groups athletes from three different sports (soccer, judo and badminton). They tested their abilities during practice, and then again in a stressful situation that would mimic a competition – large crowds, cameras, noise, the whole nine yards. However, during the stressful situation, a portion of the right handed athletes were asked to squeeze a ball in their left hand, while another portion were asked to squeeze a ball in their right hand. The results?
Those who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competing were less likely to choke under pressure than their right-hand-squeezing counterparts. Hmm, so what exactly is going on here? Here’s what one of the lead scientists of the study had to say:
“For skilled athletes, many movements, such as kicking a soccer ball or completing a judo kick, become automatic with little conscious thought. When athletes under pressure don’t perform well, they may be focusing too much on their own movements rather than relying on their motor skills developed through years of practice. Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor tasks. Athletes usually perform better when they trust their bodies rather than thinking too much about their own actions or what their coaches told them during practice. While it may seem counterintuitive, consciously trying to keep one’s balance is likely to produce imbalance, as was seen in some sub-par performances by gymnasts during the Olympics in London.” – Juergen Beckmann, PhD, chair of sport psychology at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.
Basically, the left hemisphere of your brain is what does all the “overthinking” while the right side is what’s responsible for automatic behaviours – such as that tumbling pass you’ve done a billion times before. However, each side of your body is connected to the opposite side of the brain – so when you squeeze a ball in your left hand, you’re actually activating the right side of the brain, which is what you want. It’s a nice way to reset your mentality which prevents you from thinking your way to eating mat.
There’s just no two ways about it – getting stronger while you work through your mental block is an almost guaranteed way to make sure it never returns.
Think about it – weak athletes get injured more often, have less confidence, require more time to master skills, blame others for their lack of ability, become weak links in a team, and are generally not at the top of their game.
It may sound harsh, but it’s the brutal truth. Not being strong enough to perform the skills you want can lead to any one of the triggers I mentioned above, which is why conditioning is a variable that encompasses the entire formula. You have to be willing to get stronger, but do so with intelligence. I wrote an entire article on what type of conditioning is actually beneficial for cheerleaders and gymnasts, and what type can actually make you worse. I highly suggest you read up on it.
“Athletes usually perform better when they trust their bodies rather than thinking too much about their own actions” (Tweet This)
The “S” Stands For Success
As I stated earlier, when combined with patience and diligence, this formula has not failed anyone, and will not fail you either. The biggest hurdle will be whether or not you’re willing to take one step back today, so that you can take two or even three steps ahead in the future.
Didn’t make a team this season? No big deal, use the time you have as a free agent to develop your skills and come back better, faster and stronger. You really think a program will refuse to take on an athlete that can do all of their tumbling passes, is strong enough to stunt, well conditioned, has good flexibility and has a champion’s mentality?
Get real. They will snatch you up like a Versace dress at a half off sale. But you have to be willing to invest the time. Cheerleading has many divisions and regardless of your age, there is a team out there with their eyes set on World’s, and they could use your talents. But the last thing they need is someone that suffers from blocks or worse, chokes when they step in front of that deafening crowd.
As always, train hard, eat well and stay fierce.
Did You Find This Article Useful?
If so, please do me a small favor and share it with your fellow athletes, coaches and friends. Mental blocks have robbed more cheerleaders from performing at their highest level than injuries, and I want to help eliminate them as much as possible.
– Coach Sahil M.
Certified Gymnastics Coach
Fitness & Nutrition Consultant
Author of The Cheer Diet
Former National Champion
National Deadlift Record Holder
Founder of Addicted To Tumbling