Mental Blocks in Sports

A mental block is the inability to cognitively process thoughts or recall information. The effect can potentially interfere with performance. Sometimes confusion, lack of action, or indecision can occur with mental blocks. Performers of all ages, backgrounds,  and  activities  can  experience  a  mental block in varying degrees of severity. The block may be  caused  by  repression  of  painful  information; a  traumatic  physical  or  emotional  event;  or  lack of focus that results from fatigue, fear, or a poor previous performance. Mental blocks are believed to  be  temporary  and  surmountable  if  properly addressed. This entry discusses the harmful effects of  mental  blocks  and  several  psychological  skills that can help in overcoming mental blocks.

Harmful Effects

Athletes  have  described  mental  blocks  in  phrases like  “my  brain  is  stuck”  or  “my  body  won’t move.”  Harmful  thoughts  seem  to  overtake  their cognitive  processing  and  physical  movements.  As a  result,  several  negative  effects  can  stem  from mental  blocks.  Athletes  may  have  a  decrease  in performance or in severe cases the inability to perform their sport or a specific sport skill. The lack of  mental  readiness  to  perform  can  produce  high stress and anxiety. Over time, if the mental block is not resolved, an athlete can experience avoidance behavior or more severe symptoms of psychological distress.

Overcoming Mental Blocks

The  following  psychological  skills  can  help  in overcoming mental blocks.

Imagery

Imagery  is  the  process  of  rehearsing  a  performance of a physical task while using all the senses to  create  or  recreate  the  experience  in  the  mind. Imagery  should  employ  a  variety  of  senses  and should  be  practiced  with  an  internal  perspective or  visualizing  through  one’s  own  eyes.  This  skill enhances  performance  and  focus,  and  regulates anxiety.  Imagery  is  a  powerful  tool  because  brain activity during imagery (e.g., when imaging a perfect golf putt) parallels brain activity during actual physical  movement.  Imagery  should  be  relevant and specific to the present task and should be part of a regular routine, used before, during, and after practices  and  performances.  Mentally  rehearsing a perfect response can alleviate mental blocks by  increasing  success  expectations  and  therefore increasing  successful  performances.  For  example, when  a  golfer  is  experiencing  a  mental  block  in putting,  she  can  use  imagery  to  visualize  herself completing  a  smooth,  automatic  stroke  and  sinking  the  putt  in  the  hole.  Visualizing  successes  can increase her confidence and help her break free of the mental block.

Goal Setting

Goal  setting  is  a  systematic  approach  to  acting and thinking in purposeful ways to achieve specific accomplishments.  Goal  setting  affects  behavior  by increasing focus, effort, and motivation and affects cognitions by influencing levels of anxiety, motivation, and confidence. Goal setting can help athletes avoid mental blocks through breaking down complex skills into more manageable tasks. For example, if  an  athlete  is  experiencing  a  mental  block  pole-vaulting, he can break the skill down into smaller, more  manageable  goals,  such  as  improving  his approach and clearing the bar one foot lower than his  desired  height.  As  he  experiences  success  with these  smaller  process  goals,  the  athlete  may  begin to  have  confidence  that  he  can  complete  the  task; he  can  conquer  his  mental  block.  As  a  result,  his effort and motivation to clear his goal height should increase, leading to further performance success.

Relaxation

Relaxation  is  an  important  skill  to  master because  athletic  performance  and  mental  blocks can be highly stressful. Athletes respond to stress cognitively (i.e., thoughts) and/or somatically (i.e., physiological  reactions).  Physical  relaxation  is a  way  to  reduce  reactions  to  stress  and  purposefully control the body to stimulate a more relaxed state.  Athletes  can  benefit  from  physical  relaxation because when employed properly, relaxation reduces  muscle  tension  and  can  alleviate  somatic symptoms of anxiety (i.e., a racing heart or shallow breathing). Physical relaxation techniques can be used as a momentary response during competition  (e.g.,  before  a  foul  shot),  to  conserve  energy before games or practices, and as a way to rest and recover between or after performances. Techniques include  power  breathing  and  the  tension-release method.  Power  breathing  is  using  the  diaphragm to consciously slow one’s breathing to reduce tension and symptoms of somatic anxiety. An example of using power breathing is taking a long, steady inhale for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 2 seconds, and exhaling the breath for 6 seconds. The tension-release method requires the athlete to systematically  tighten  and  relax  muscles  throughout the body. Not only does this help the athlete feel loosened  up  but  also  it  helps  the  athlete  become more  aware  of  tension  throughout  the  body.  For example, when a gymnast is experiencing a mental  block  with  a  back  tuck,  utilizing  relaxation techniques  can  help  ease  any  muscle  tension  that is inhibiting her from performing the skill successfully. Using power breathing before practices and before  performing  the  skill  itself  can  help  relieve any existing muscle tension and set the gymnast up for smooth execution of the skill.

Preventing  and  overcoming  mental  blocks  are an  important  aspect  of  successful  performance. While  there  is  not  a  lot  of  research  specifically examining mental blocks, we do know that using psychological skills, such as imagery, goal setting, and  relaxation,  helps  to  maintain  confidence, lower  anxiety,  and  ensure  that  athletes  are  mentally  ready  to  cognitively  process  thoughts  and perform their best.

References:

  1. Chase, M. A., Magyar, T. M., & Drake, B. (2005). Fearof injury in gymnastics: Self-efficacy and psychological strategies to keep on tumbling. Journal of Sports Sciences, 23, 465–475.
  2. Goldberg, A. S. (2005). Sports slump busting: 10 Steps to mental toughness and peak performance. Coral Springs, FL: Llumina Press.
  3. Grand, D., & Goldberg, A. S. (2011). This is your mind on sports: Beating blocks, slumps, and performance anxiety for good. Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Publishing.
  4. Vealey, R. S. (2005). Coaching for the inner edge.Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
  5. Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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