A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
The dreaded mental block: Helping kids conquer them
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
Young athletes face many challenges, one of them being mental blocks.
They can happen to any child playing any sport.
They can also occur at any time.
We spoke with Dr. Mark Aoyagi, founder and director of the Center for Performance Excellence at the University of Denver, and Research and Practice Division Head for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, to get his perspective on the dreaded mental block and how young athletes can overcome them when they strike.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How would you define mental blocks?
DR. AOYAGI: A mental block is the inability of an athlete to perform a skill or movement they had previously mastered.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Why do they happen to young athletes, especially if it is a particular skill they have been good at all season?
DR. AOYAGI: Mental blocks can happen for different reasons. A classic example for young women going through puberty is their center of gravity shifts and things start to feel different. This is very common for gymnasts and divers and can happen to boys as well. Another example is as kids mature, their awareness starts growing and they begin to think to themselves, ‘I can really hurt myself doing this’ or ‘I can really embarrass myself doing this.’
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How common are mental blocks in youth sports?
DR. AOYAGI: There is no reliable statistic so it’s really hard to say.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are tips for coaches and parents to help the young athlete overcome them?
DR. AOYAGI: It is important for coaches to be patient with the child and not add any additional pressure or attack them. Coaches should understand and know this is something that people go through. Young athletes need to regain confidence in a way that is safe, not embarrassing and emotionally scarring. Starting with basic fundamentals and putting them back into the skills they feel comfortable with will help them progress much quicker. Relearning and becoming comfortable with the skill or skills is a part of the process.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is it okay for a coach to give special attention to a player suffering from mental blocks?
DR. AOYAGI: Yes, but it depends on the kind of attention. The attention given can be done in a way that makes them feel singled out, so the attention coaches give should be supportive and caring.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Can a young athlete expect to suffer from mental blocks in the future?
DR. AOYAGI: There’s no reason to expect it would happen again. The more you put a negative spotlight on it likely increases the possibility of reoccurrence, but if you work on it and move on, there’s no reason to believe it will come back. There’s no personality type that makes one susceptible to a mental block. If it is happening more than once, it’s likely about the messaging they received the first time it happened.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How should a coach handle working with a child going through mental blocks?
DR. AOYAGI: Be patient and do not blame them. Remind the athlete that this is not a big deal, and it’s something that we are going to work on right now.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are common mistakes coaches and parents make in dealing with them?
DR. AOYAGI: Trying to get athletes back to where they were before too soon; and thinking that it’s a problem they are not at the level they were before.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is there anything coaches can do with their teams before practices even begin for the season to help prevent mental blocks from occurring, such as positive imagery, relaxation techniques, self-talks?
DR. AOYAGI: All of those things can be helpful. There is no one thing that is going to eliminate mental blocks, but creating a mastery environment is important. Coaches should reinforce effort and growth over outcomes and achievement.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Should parents be doing anything at home with their child during the season to help prevent mental blocks from occurring – like keeping the conversations on their effort and not on the outcome of their performance, for example.
DR. AOYAGI: Most coaches and parents are not taught how to deal with this. Mental aspects are seen as mysterious and can have a negative connotation. If parents and coaches feel comfortable talking about it, that is great. And yes, focusing on effort rather than outcome is a great way to be supportive. It is also important to talk about other aspects of the child’s life so sport is kept in perspective.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Are there certain sports more prone for mental blocks to occur in?
DR. AOYAGI: Mental blocks tend to occur in individual sports or with relatively simple skills. When athletes try to consciously control simple movements that are already well-learned, problems such as the yips can develop.
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