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  • By Alison Arnold, PhD (Doc Ali)

Parenting Through Fear and Mental Blocks


Overcoming fear and mental blocks is one of the most frustrating challenges in gymnastics. They manifest in many obvious ways but sometimes can be more subtle – lack of confidence, the inability to throw a skill they’ve done for years, or a sudden inexplicable reluctance to go to practice. With all the athletes I work with it’s the issue that causes the most stress, not only for them and their coaches, but for the parents as well. You try not to think it, but the unthinkables come anyway, “I’m paying so much money for this, why is she not doing it?,” “She’s not going to be ready for the next level!,” or even, “Maybe she is just not cut out for this sport.” Here are some tips to help you deal with your athletes fears and mental blocks.

1. Stay calm and normalize fear. I know that’s difficult but fear actually feeds on pressure and anxiety. You want to stay as calm as possible and express relentless optimism to your athlete that they will work through this fear. Save the freaking out for your close friends and spouse! To your child express thoughts like, “I know you can work through this,” and “Fear is natural and normal. I’d be scared too if I were flipping around like you are.” Be sure to remind your child that fear is a normal and natural emotion and it’s OK to feel afraid sometimes.

2. Remind them of past successes and what they did to achieve them. For many athletes, fear and working through it are a recurring theme. Remind your child of times they have worked through fear in the past. Help them remember their bravery and tenacity. Have them write a list of past successes and what tools they used to work through fear. When they can pinpoint what’s worked in the past, they can utilize those tools in the present.

3. Too much pressure? Sometimes fear is related to not feeling safe on a skill, especially if it’s new or there has been a fall on the skill in the past. But other times, especially with fears and blocks that are hard to explain, it is the system’s response to feeling too much pressure. If you have a child that seems to put a lot of pressure on themselves, be sure as a parent you are taking as much of the pressure off as you can. Channel your inner “Jamaican” and practice your “No worries, Mon.” even if you have to fake it. Keep reminding your athlete that they will be fine, just do their best, and it’s only gymnastics.

4. Provide tools. Your greatest tools are love and security. If things are tumultuous in the home, it can be translating to chaos on the gym floor. Perhaps you are moving into a new home. Divorce is a big one. Or maybe there are financial concerns at home that your athlete is picking up on. Sometimes the family is simply over-scheduled and things have gotten extremely hectic. Do what is in your power to help your athlete feel safe and loved. I also recommend that you provide them with outside tools and skills to help them work through their issue. There are many professionals, books, and programs out there that offer drills and mental exercises. Personally, I’ve developed an arsenal of pragmatic tools specifically targeting those in gymnastics but which become invaluable throughout their lives. There’s several videos on my YouTube page which you may find helpful as well.

If you have any questions, please email me directly at docali@headgamesworld.com or visit my website at HeadGamesWorld.com. I’m here for you!

Dr. Alison Arnold pioneered peak performance mental training in the sport of gymnastics. Doc Ali has worked with members of every Olympic team for the past 20 years as well as NCAA champions, and thousands of athletes chasing their dreams. After receiving her PhD in Clinical Psychology, she spent 12 weeks studying the mind with the masters in Nepal, four weeks in a Thai forest monastery, three weeks in the Amazon jungle in Peru, two weeks in silence integrating it all, and still made it back to teach it. A former gymnast herself, she is relentless about helping people reach their potential. She has been a mental toughness coach for USA Gymnastics since 1997. Doc Ali is a consistently invited contributor to regional and national USA Gymnastics congresses, and industry publications and websites around the world.

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