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"Understanding Mental Blocks" from Peyton Del Toro's book, Tumbling With Intention

Peyton Del Toro is a co-owner, coach, and choreographer at Motor City Cheer. This is an excerpt from her recent book, Tumbling With Intention, available on Amazon and in the gym!


Mental blocks are not the same thing as having fear before attempting a skill. Fear is a healthy and unavoidable part of tumbling; however, mental blocks are characterized by the additional overwhelming anxiety that triggers the fight-flight-or-freeze response in the body. A mental block is a brain’s survival instinct kicking in, neurologically prohibiting an athlete from attempting a skill. How many times have you heard an athlete with a mental block say, “I want to do it, but my body just won’t go”? That’s because the body has quite literally paralyzed itself from anxiety. The brain picks up on the fear and anxiety, and signals a “danger” alert to the body, essentially overriding the athlete’s decision to go for the skill. It’s the same reflex as pulling your hand away from a hot surface of 155°–your unconscious mind senses the danger and contracts your muscles before you consciously even realize you’re touching something hot. 

Despite the fact that mental blocks do not reside in the conscious brain, many parents and coaches use tactics like bribery, degradation, and punishment. None of these tactics work, and they have profoundly harmful impacts on the athlete’s conscious and unconscious mind. To continue with the metaphor I previously mentioned, let’s say someone you love bribes you with a new iPhone. You can have it if you rewire your brain so that for the rest of your life, you decide to touch every 155° surface for 3 seconds (about the length it takes to set up, go for, and finish a skill or pass). One major roadblock is that you experienced second degree burns not long ago, or you witnessed a friend getting burned. Would you be able to do it? What if that person you admire tells you that you are wasting their time/money, that you’re just lazy, or that you just don’t want that iPhone enough; would that help you rewire your brain to do it? The process of overcoming a mental block requires a tremendous amount of patience, self-reflection, and support.


When I was about 7- to 9-years-old I was a gymnast with a mental block. I would not jump from the low bar to the high bar. For whatever reason, this element, which is hardly even a skill at all, had my coaches, my mom, and me feeling defeated for a whole two years. When it was my turn, I would get up there and my palms and feet would be sweaty. I would feel my whole body buzzing while my heart was beating fast. I would look at the bar, and no matter what everyone told me to say or think when I was about to jump, my mind would go blank. Everyone around me made it look so easy, they wouldn’t even hesitate. I could not understand why I couldn’t get myself to even try it. Neither could my coaches. 


When it was my turn, I would get up there and my palms and feet would be sweaty. I would feel my whole body buzzing while my heart was beating fast.

After a couple months with the mental block, my coaches started punishing me by making me run the entire rest of practice. Practices were four hours, so that meant if our first event of the day was bars, I would be running in circles around the spring floor for about 3.5 hours. My feet hurt, I pinched nerves, I developed tendonitis in my achilles, and after about a year I developed arthritis. I was humiliated, and I missed my friends. I would spend the entire time running feeling frustrated at myself, asking what was wrong with me. I thought that my coaches were making me run because they were mad at me, or that they had given up on me, and I’d hype myself up to try to make them proud the next day. I worried about what my mom would say when I got in the car, knowing I had just wasted her money (the little we had) by ruining my own opportunity to be trained. I would get in the car, and my mom would ask me questions to try to understand how to help me, but even talking about it I would freeze. In school, I would count down the minutes until practice when I would have to see the bar again. I would visualize myself finally jumping to the high bar instead of paying attention to the teacher. On the hour-long drive to practice the next day, I would silently look out the window up at the sky and pray for the courage to finally jump to the high bar. And then the cycle would repeat. 


At competitions, I would jump down from the low bar and take the deduction for falling. My coach would lift me up to the high bar, where I kipped up from a dead hang and resumed the routine. I would still score 8.5s on bars and place in the top three of my age group all-around, so to my coaches, that was not teaching me anything. 


Chicago Style was one of my first meets that my mom and I had to travel for. (And yes, I prayed for courage most of the entire 4-hour drive.) It was exciting to stay in a hotel room and get a fancy new leotard from the meet. Without warning, my coaches decided not to pick me up to the high bar so I could finish my routine at this meet. Instead, they made me stand there while the judges took 15 minutes to calculate my scores. They even had to pull out the rule books, because when a routine wasn’t finished, every possible deduction had to be deducted from every skill in the routine that I had not showcased–or at least that’s what my coaches told me. My team went on to warm up for the next event, and I was left standing there alone, waiting for my score. I remember other kids and coaches from other gyms staring at me and whispering, wondering what was happening. Finally, they flipped the score cards and revealed my score for everyone in the facility to see: A 1.4/10. I was devastated and humiliated. My mom spent so much money on that trip, and I felt guilty that I let everyone down. I felt the lowest I had in my entire life at that moment. 


Of course, I got back to the gym, and I held more resentment towards that skill than I ever had before. But at this point, I had a doctor’s note that I could no longer run, so they decided it was time for a new punishment. They told me if I wanted to act like a baby, they would put me with the babies. I, as a 9-year-old Level 5 gymnast at this point, was moved to work with the 5- and 6-year old pre-team Level 1s and 2s. I didn’t think I could be more humiliated than running in circles for the whole gym to see, but that definitely was the cherry on top. 


My mom tried everything to help me. She was a gymnastics coach, so she would take me when the gym was empty to try jumping off a block instead, starting close and gradually moving it backwards. But when it was just about the distance as the low bar, I froze up again. She got me a journal to write “I can jump to the high bar” over and over and over again, and I’d be crying as I wrote it, knowing it wasn’t true. She even tried to help me pinpoint the root of my mental block. She was there at the gym at the same time as me when I was about 6- or 7-years-old, and I was watching the big girls practice while she worked. I was standing next to the bars when one of the big girls jumped to the high bar and missed the bar with one of her hands. As she fell, she put her arm behind her, and her shoulder bone literally came out of her skin. I still remember her writhing in pain, screaming “Why me? Please no, God, no,” over and over and over. My mom knew the impact that must have had on me, even though at the time I swore I wasn’t even scared–I just couldn’t get my body to do it. 


After the Chicago meet and that practice with the “babies,” I remember overhearing a conversation between my mom and my coach. I didn’t practice at the same gym as the one my mom worked at, and there was no parent-viewing area. I can’t remember how much of my humiliation I actually told my mom, because I was too ashamed and believed I deserved it. But of course, the Chicago meet was an incredibly public humiliation strategy. I don’t remember all of the conversation they had, but I remember my mom saying to my coach, “her failure is your failure, stop punishing her for something you equally haven’t been able to fix.” In that moment, I realized my mom saw my pain, and she knew I was trying my best. She knew I was doing everything I could, and that the coaches were wrong. Hearing that my fear was not a punishable offense, and that they had no right to humiliate me the way they did, gave me the power I felt I was missing. The very next practice, I did it. And the very season, I was trying out a new gym. 

It’s clear that my coaches failed me. They believed my mental block was a choice that should be punished. I can say very clearly, that is the absolute worst way to handle mental blocks. 

I hope to offer a more holistic approach to understanding and working through mental blocks. The athlete-experience of mental blocks resonates deeply with me, but I understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to working through them or even preventing them. My goal, then, is to create a new dialogue about mental blocks that encourages creativity and, most importantly, empathy from coaches and parents alike. 


What triggers a mental block? 


The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple. However, the one thing that all types of mental blocks have in common is some sort of trauma, either physical (witnessing/experiencing injury) or mental/emotional (witnessing/experiencing abuse, violation, etc.) Trauma is subjective to each person–our brains all respond to experiences and emotions differently. If you were to ask my 9-year-old self if I was scared to jump to the high bar because I witnessed a talented athlete break her arm doing it, I would have said absolutely not. Honestly, deep down until I just wrote it out the way it happened, I still would stand by the fact that I wasn’t scared, I just couldn’t do it. The sweaty palms, the buzzing sensations, and the heart pounding symptoms would all indicate the presence of fear, of course. But for me, there was a disconnect–I didn’t understand or even believe the fear was there in my conscious mind, I just thought something was wrong with me. An athlete cannot focus on doing the work it takes (re-processing the trauma) to overcome a mental block while feeling like they are a disappointment. 


I didn’t understand or even believe the fear was there in my conscious mind, I just thought something was wrong with me

In other cases, the athlete with the mental block doesn’t witness a traumatic event, they experience one. Whether they have gotten hurt while tumbling, are made to choose between parents in a divorce, have been subjected to a racial hate crime, or are a survivor of abuse, many different types of trauma can manifest as a tumbling block. Athletes who experience sexual trauma, in which their body/boundaries have been violated, sometimes experience a mind/body disconnect while tumbling, which can lead to a mental block. The body begins to react to tumbling in a way that resembles the feelings of the violation, causing an athlete to panic and freeze up. 


Mental blocks that are triggered by trauma can be hard to detect, especially when the athlete is carrying shame about what happened. Parents may not even know about the incident, and sometimes, even the child has blocked it from their conscious memory. But if there is one silver lining of an athlete experiencing a mental block, it’s that the process and triumph can instill the athlete with a newfound (or restored) peace of mind, as well as feelings of control, trust, and love for their body. Overcoming a mental block is a profoundly healing experience. 

Fear of the unknown/the uncontrollable also can ignite the brain’s survival mode. This fear can be created when an athlete is not progressing at a reasonable pace for their mind or their body, leaving them feeling unprepared or doubting their own consistency. However, this fear can also be rooted in something that has nothing to do with tumbling. 


I’ve had numerous athletes who, once they hit middle/high school, develop a mental block with running tumbling, but their standing tumbling isn’t affected. When a young person is afraid of power (and it manifests as power in tumbling), the fear usually falls under one of two umbrellas: 


a.) A fear of approaching adulthood, including a changing body. This typically includes athletes getting ready to go to high school or college for the first time, or pubescent athletes who may be experiencing hormonal changes, receiving unwanted attention, or feeling like they no longer recognize themselves. 

b.) A recent or past traumatic situation in which they felt powerless, or in other words, their power was taken away from them. This can include witnessing or experiencing verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. 


It’s important to note that these are not one-or-the-other “types” of mental blocks, there’s simply no such thing. In almost all cases, there are many factors at play. These are deep rooted feelings that, quite honestly, most tumbling instructors are not qualified or compensated to work through with an athlete. But because these emotional processing issues, which are often suppressed, are made tangible through an athlete’s tumbling, most athletes’ parents would rather pour their money into private lessons than commit to long-term, sustainable therapy for their child. It is our responsibility as coaches to advocate for our athletes, which may mean advising the parent to put their child into therapy. At the very least, encourage the child (or their parent) to work through their feelings with guided journal prompts that you can send home with them. The journal prompt could be something like, “Write about a time you felt powerless. What did that feel like in your body? Are those feelings similar to what it feels like when you set up to tumble?”


But because these emotional processing issues, which are often suppressed, are made tangible through an athlete’s tumbling, most athletes’ parents would rather pour their money into private lessons than commit to long-term, sustainable therapy for their child. It is our responsibility as coaches to advocate for our athletes.

One of the common responses from parents I hear is that they don’t want to pay for therapy. The thing is, if a parent is willing to pay for tumbling training, they should be willing to invest in their child’s mental and emotional well-being. I understand the financial struggle–after all, I coach tumbling! However, beyond tumbling, mental blocks indicate that an athlete is not processing something that happened to them that is affecting them greatly. Many athletes fall into a pit of despair, dread, and frustration as they are left to navigate the issue without a professional. Dr. David Grand’s work on Brainspots suggests that through Brainspotting, a method similar to EMDR therapy for bilateral brain stimulation, licensed professionals are able to locate traumatic experiences from the unconscious mind and re-process them with guidance. Athletes will need multiple therapeutic sessions to gain comfort with their clinician before accessing and processing trauma with them. Dr. Grand explains Brainspotting as follows:

Brainspotting functions as a neurobiological tool to support the clinical healing relationship. There is no replacement for a mature, nurturing therapeutic presence and the ability to engage another suffering human in a safe and trusting relationship where they feel heard, accepted, and understood.

Brainspotting gives us a tool, within this clinical relationship, to neurobiologically locate, focus, process, and release experiences and symptoms that are typically out of reach of the conscious mind and its cognitive and language capacity.


This goes back to what I said earlier about athletes blocking traumatic events from their conscious memory and lacking the language to be able to adequately discuss how it impacted them. So, while verbalizing/writing affirmations, meditating/journaling, and drilling the skill can help, there are very few methods to actually get to the root of the trauma. This is why I encourage coaches to recommend therapy, specifically Brainspotting or EMDR therapy, to parents of athletes with mental blocks. 


So, while verbalizing/writing affirmations, meditating/journaling, and drilling the skill can help, there are very few methods [other than therapy] to actually get to the root of the trauma.

As mentioned by Dr. Grand, the value of having someone in your corner that sees your pain and supports you through it is unparalleled. Coaches, at the very least, can offer a safe place of support as athletes experience the struggle of a mental block. I am not including information about therapeutic strategies here because I want coaches to try to do it themselves; however, I hope to equip coaches with knowledge to pass along to the athlete’s caretakers. Coaches are, quite frankly, underqualified to be able to tackle the trauma behind mental blocks alone. But one of the major roles of coaching is advocating for the athletes we work with. 


My athlete has a mental block, what do I do? 


Mental blocks are tough on everyone involved. Parents and coaches struggle to watch their athlete in so much pain, knowing how physically capable they are. At the same time, athletes struggle with the feeling of continuously disappointing their parents, coaches, or team. 

When coaches have an athlete with a mental block, it is imperative to solidify a strong support system for them. This means talking with the parents about the nature of mental blocks, and what their role should be. Explain to parents that pressure, even in the form of bribery, can negatively impact an athlete’s ability to feel supported in the ways they need to. Discuss proper strategies for parents to communicate with the athlete about the mental block, meaning disappointment and pressure are off the table. You might say to a parent: 


“Sally is really working hard to overcome this block, but she’s still struggling with anxiety. What she’s doing is really brave. Make sure to tell Sally that you’re proud of how hard she’s working and that you see the bravery she has to not give up. Ask her what you can do to show your support, and really listen. Try to focus on what she is doing well in this process, and leave the coaching of what she should be doing to me. It’s important for athletes with this level of fear and anxiety to know that your love, pride, and status are not tied to her doing or not doing the skill.” 


Many parents have an incredibly hard time witnessing their child struggle, so try to be patient with them. But do not give up on educating them and guiding them through the process, no matter how difficult it may be for you personally. We owe it to our athletes. 


As for coaches, we should be consistent with our support and encourage students to be safely challenged in creative and fun ways. There have been times where we are playing a game where athletes can earn points by trying new things, and all of a sudden, an athlete with a mental block throws the skill. Another time, I saw a video of one of my athletes with a mental block of a back tuck do one off a boat into a lake. When she got back to the gym, I “recreated” the scene, putting a paper “steering wheel” that I drew on top of some stacked mats and paper “waves” on top of a crash mat. The athlete laughed, but they also did the skill. While I am not saying this always works, (because as we’ve learned, mental blocks are much deeper than the skill itself), it’s important to keep struggling athletes feeling hopeful, supported happiness, and worthy of joy. Mental blocks can create an incredibly dark mental space for athletes, so one thing we can do as coaches is elevate the fun of practice and help the athlete fall back in love with tumbling. 



Works Cited

Grand, David. “What Is Brainspotting?” Brainspotting, brainspotting.com/about-bsp/what-is-brainspotting/. Accessed 4 July 2023. 

Miller, Susannah. “Using Neuroscience to Overcome Mental Blocks and Optimize Your Nervous System.” SwimSwam, 7 Dec. 2021, swimswam.com/using-neuroscience-to-overcome-mental-blocks-and-optimize-your-nervous-system/


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