I just wanted to share a book on mental blocks. I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Benson a few years ago when he was consulting with a local girl (he’s in California), and she flew him in to work with her. They needed a gym, so he suggested mine, because through facebook, he knew I also worked with mental blocks. When he left, he passed her off to me to work with. Great guy and great book! I believe this can apply to other sports as well.
“unBlocked: The Walls Come Tumbling Down” is a best selling book that was written to help cheerleaders, parents, and coaches understand and resolve the mental hurdles that occur in competitive cheerleading. Many athletes allow mental blocks to define them, inhibiting their happiness and success within the sport of cheerleading. Jeff Benson explains how a mental block is just a hurdle in the life of an athlete and one that can be overcome with hard work, determination, and persistence. Author Jeff Benson has designed the system laid out in this book to take anyone in the Triad, aka the athlete, parent and coach, through the process of resolving the athlete’s mental blocks in a holistic approach.
Supporting a Child with a Mental Block
Mental blocks are arguably the most frustrating aspect to competitive cheerleading because they do not just impact just the athlete, but also the coach, team, and their family. Having worked exclusively with athletes that have mental blocks, I have seen the impact and devastation that it can have on the athlete and the world around them.
For parents specifically, I have noticed that there are three main reasons for their frustration.
1. Mental blocks don’t seem to make sense
“My daughter was just able to do that skill last week. Why won’t she just
2. Seeing the passion and love for the sport drain from their child’s eyes.
“My daughter used to love going to practice. Cheerleading was all she talked
about, but now she makes excuses to avoid practice and is upset all the time.
It breaks my heart!”
3. Time and Financial commitment
You spend thousands of dollars on competitions and training, as well as
countless hours driving to and from practices, and attending competitions,
often compromising family vacations for your son or daughter’s cheer
All of these elements combine together creating a whirlwind of emotions and
confusion. On one hand you want to do everything you can to support your child, but at the
same time want to shake them and tell them, “Just do it!” So, what is the best way for a
parent to support their child if they happen to struggle with a mental block?
First, I think it’s important to get clarification on the definition of a mental block. A
mental block occurs when an athlete was previously able to perform a tumbling skill to
near perfection (straight legs, with a powerful rebound, etc), in multiple venues (in
practice, at competitions, etc.), many different times (for more than for 1 month), and now
is no longer able to perform the skill. So, an athlete who was throwing a back handspring
on the trampoline, but is now scared to throw it on the floor is not experiencing a mental
block. However, an athlete who was on a level 4 team, throwing layouts, but now won’t
throw a back handspring without a spot, is most likely struggling with a mental block.
A Little Science
I also think it’s important to understand the science behind a mental block. A mental
block is not a lack of will power or some testament to mental weakness in an athlete.
Rather, a mental block occurs when an athlete’s amygdala (A small almond shape structure
in the brain) believes the cheerleader is not safe. The function of the amygdala is to keep a
person safe. When the amygdala feels threatened the fight, flight or freeze response is
initiated. I am sure you all remember learning about Fight or Flight in high school.
Fight– When you’re driving, and someone cuts you off and your immediate reaction is to
scream at them or fantasize about hitting them from behind (or is that just me?).
Flight– When you are walking down the street and you see a group of people acting erratic
and you cross to the other side of the street or turn around and find a different route home.
Freeze– When someone begins shouting at you and your unable to move or say anything
You all have probably experienced each of these three responses. Do you remember
actively choosing them or were you halfway through your action and then realized what
you were doing? I am certain that more often than not, you act first and think later. When
an athlete is blocking, their ANS has decided to keep them safe, by releasing chemicals that
inhibit movement and strength- temporarily freezing them. That’s why your son or
daughter says things like, “I know I can do it, but when I go to throw it, my body just won’t
go.” Their ANS has released chemicals to prevent them from tumbling. The intent is
positive- to keep him or her safe and away from harm, but often this AUTOMATIC reaction
Do’s and Don’ts
To do To avoid
Educate your child Coaching your child
Listen and support them Rewards or external motivators
Reinforce what the coach is saying Asking if they tumbled today
Celebrate small successes Punishments
Focus on effort and hard work Having expectations
See a mental block as an opportunity Believing there is a timeline for blocks
Use this as a life lesson Comparing your child to anyone else’s
Recognize when you need support and
The first thing that a parent can do to best support their child-athlete is to let them
know what is happening inside their body is not their fault, but rather a highly adaptive
and typically functional tool to keep them safe. Secondly, your job is to hug, listen and
console your child when they are frustrated by this AUTOMATIC response. This
unconditional support is essential to the emotional well being of your child. Don’t worry
about finding strategies to help them work through their block- that’s their coaches and my
Find a coach that is patient with your child, one that is supportive, nurturing and is
not overly concerned with the time it takes for your child to get their tumbling back. A
coach who does not have expectations and is willing to ask others for help and guidance is
also a good sign. When you’ve found a person, who fits these criteria hold on to them and
listen to their advice. Do not undermine them by going to multiple coaches to try and find
the miracle cure. This is a great opportunity for your child to learn a valuable life lesson.
Mental blocks aren’t fair, but they do offer a child the opportunity to set small goals
and work towards attaining them. It will not be glamorous, in fact it will probably be some
of the most challenging and difficult work your child has ever done. However, if guided
lovingly and patiently, and taught proper coping skills, your child has an amazing
opportunity to learn about themselves and grow in a way that most children would never
experience at their age.
Keeping a healthy perspective is essential. When a parent becomes overly emotional
or involved in their child’s mental block that is a sign that they should begin to back off and
reach out for support. A parent’s intent is always genuine and loving, but sometimes the
message/s gets mixed up and what is interpreted from your child ends up holding them
back. If you find yourself struggling to stay positive and feel overwhelmed by the roller
coaster of emotions that come along with mental blocks, do not be ashamed to reach out for
support, you deserve it.
One of the best lessons I learned in my psychology program is that you cannot
possibly care for anyone else, if you are not first taking care of yourself. So, parents, when
you need help, don’t hesitate to ask for it, it will make you more available for your son or
If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to reach out to me at
MindBodyCheer@gmail.com or visit my website at www.MindBodyCheer.com