By Michael Heck, MA, LPC
This season of life has been an emotional roller coaster for many in our nation. The adjustments we’ve had to make to stay healthy have been significant. The adjustments, due to a life in quarantine, job status, or health, have paused life as we know it. Most young athletes and families are now homebound, with parents wearing multiple hats: teacher, referee, coach, and parent. High school and college students that I’ve been working with are trying to stay in shape, trying to find some resemblance to normalcy. Professional athletes experience a career on hold, uncertain of when their seasons will begin again.
I’ve found that athletes who struggled with a mental block before the impact of the COVID-19 virus have continued to wrestle with the stress of the mental block. These issues have been consistently reported, no matter the age, level, or sport. Unfortunately, the impact of a mental block remains until it is addressed; it rarely just goes away (as much as I wish it would!). Fortunately, I’ve been able to help athletes address the emotional impact of the block, paving the way for a more hopeful future when their sport begins again.
Current Treatment Protocols
I’ve researched how others are currently attempting to treat these issues. Tools such as self-talk and visualization, especially when the block is related to a traumatic event or witnessing a traumatic event, have been substandard in helping athletes. We are learning that mental blocks must be viewed as an unseen injury to our brain, an unseen injury that causes an athlete’s body to do what it was designed to do: protect itself. We know that negative self-talk is problematic and positive self-talk isn’t always corrective, or else these issues would be far easier to work through. We know visualization can be helpful, but with a mental block, visualization can be a traumatic experience as well!
In my experience, there is a difference between balking and a mental block. I believe that balking can be addressed by using skills such as the 5-second rule, visualization, relaxation skills, breathing, and positive self-talk. In situations where I’ve encountered an athlete balking, their stress level is reported at a lower level (compared to the impact of a mental block) and they can exercise some important mental ability to perform. While they are not performing at the desired level, they are still performing certain skills.
I work with athletes with mental blocks, and it’s a very vulnerable experience; it’s emotional for the athlete, family, and coaches. It feels like all the tires have come off the race car with very little understanding of how to regain the momentum an athlete once enjoyed. I get calls from parents who deeply care about their athletes and feel powerless to address the issue. Both balking and mental blocks impact an athlete mentally and can then be worsened by:
- Coach/athlete friction
- Inability to compete
- Teammate friction
- And family friction
I often hear, “My brain is working against me!” or “I can’t explain why I freeze!” and, lastly, “I know others have had this…but I feel alone.” Sometimes a student/athlete’s academic experience is disrupted as well.
Mental blocks are a response to a stressful, traumatic event that causes a post-traumatic stress-type response. Most athletes will report that when away from participating in the sport, they are still experiencing a high stress level or experiencing flashbacks (being triggered by things such as watching your sport on TV or playing your sport for fun at home or with friends). I’m currently working with athletes who have such a response as they anticipate the day they are able to return to their sport.
Our Brain is Actually Doing Its Job
It’s important to understand that our minds are designed to protect us and sports include daily activities that are challenging and risky. Understanding balking and blocking can then be quite easy to understand: when those risky events are a real or perceived threat, our minds function to protect, protect, protect! Whenever I work with an athlete with a mental block, I ALWAYS affirm that your body is taking good care of you and, simultaneously, you need support and recovery. Trying to compete with a mental block is like trying to compete with an untreated broken bone; it’s too painful, and your body will protect itself; you will shut down!
Now, what is my approach to helping athletes resolve mental blocks? I approach mental blocks with this process in mind: everyone is different, but “slow and steady wins the race.” In understanding how our minds work, we’ve developed methods to calm mental blocks, which help the athlete relate to the moment in a way that is less stressful. This approach separates our work from much of popular sports psychology. I’ve read in some sports psychology that an athlete should not show weakness, and I vehemently disagree with this because it goes against being a genuine and authentic human being. We all experience weakness, and mental blocks remind us that we are all vulnerable. It’s our relationship with the experience of weakness and vulnerability that’s the issue.
Skills Never “Go Away”
During practice, athletes report “losing skills” or stress bleeding into other skills, causing a setback in other skills he or she was once able to confidently perform. I don’t believe that, due to balking or a mental block, athletes “lose” their skills. This is an important distinction to make for mental and emotional purposes. The idea that athletes “lose” something increases stress because one literally believes that their hard work has been invested for nothing. If you are balking or blocking, it will be far more compassionate to view yourself as “recovering your skills.” Skill recovery is the assumption that your body is still amazingly capable and that you’re learning how to manage stress in healthier ways. We experience hope through reasonable goal-setting, and appropriate levels of exposure to stress one improvement at a time.
I often tell athletes, “I wish I had a Jedi-mind trick to help you!” All athletes respond to the process differently, but balking and mental blocks can be worked through! It takes patience and perseverance to calm balking and blocking. However, you will be a different athlete on the other side of your experience. You will be more aware of your character, emotions, and strengths; you will learn more about vulnerability, authenticity, and joy. I hope to work with you soon!