Over the years I get countless referrals from athletes who, for no apparent reason, suddenly lose their skills and ability to execute what once came easily to them. A gymnast can’t get herself to go for her back-walkover or back-tuck on beam, a diver can’t throw his reverse dives, a cheerleader can’t get herself to do her tumbling pass without balking and a figure skater can’t do her double axle without popping the jump.
This sudden and seemingly inexplicable loss of skills drives athletes, coaches and parents batty, frequently switching the athlete’s relationship with their sport from a love affair to an all-consuming nightmare! The intense frustration, confusion, low self-confidence and self-hatred that it generates within the athlete threatens to and often drives him/her into a premature retirement.
When looked at more closely however, these problems are not so mysterious or inexplicable. They are instead clearly understandable and a direct byproduct of the athlete’s nervous system clicking into its self-protective response of FREEZE. Let me explain:
Despite the fact that we are human, we cannot escape our animal nature. As mammals, our nervous systems have one primary function in our life: TO INSURE SURVIVAL! Simply put, our nervous systems are biologically hard wired to insure our survival and protect us from that which we perceive as dangerous.
In sports like gymnastics, diving, tumbling and figure skating the athlete is continuously exposed to scary close calls, bad falls, injuries and having to witness all of these in teammates. Each one of these physically or emotionally upsetting incidents is directly memorized by the athlete’s body. At some point, the athlete’s ability to cope with this accumulated body memory gets compromised by a “trigger event.” One more fall, close call or even the pressure of the impending competitive season seems to trigger a fear/block that just won’t quit.
Now the athlete can’t get her/himself to execute no matter what they try. While their body knows exactly how to do the skill, they are unable to get themselves to go. Often times this paralysis is experienced directly as fear and at other times the athlete is not in touch with being afraid. What they do know is that “something” is stopping them! That “something” is their nervous system shutting them down. Triggered by the body memory of these past scary events, their nervous system is now interpreting the present situation as dangerous and is reflexively going into the FREEZE RESPONSE. When this happens, the freeze response knocks the trained performance skills offline!
Before an athlete can hope to get back on track they must be able to work through the accumulated body memories of those scary events. It is only then that their nervous system can be “convinced” that the danger from the past has indeed passed.
One of the first steps in doing this from the athlete’s perspective is to begin to forgive yourself for being stuck. The problem is actually something that you DON’T have conscious control of! You’re NOT stuck because you’re mentally weak, not trying hard enough, don’t want it bad enough, want to quit, etc.! If you had conscious control over it, then you’d go out and do the skills today. Remember, you’re freezing and can’t get yourself to go because you don’t feel safe inside!
Getting frustrated, upset and angry with yourself will not help you feel safer inside. On the contrary, it will simply make you feel less safe and therefore more stuck! Instead you want to be patient with yourself and forgiving.
Parents and coaches need to understand this concept as well. Threatening an athlete with negative consequences unless he/she goes, getting overtly angry and frustrated with them when they don’t and/or pressuring them with time deadlines and ultimatums will make them feel much less safe and contribute to the problem getting worse!