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.
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 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 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 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.
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