Virtually 70% of high level gymnasts have experienced psychological blocking – the inability to perform a skill previously performed with ease. Only a small percentage of these athletes experience blocking to the point that it disrupts their performance. Nonetheless, for those who do, the experience is devastating.
Occasionally, a clear-cut starting point identifies the origin of the psychological blocking problem – a serious fall, a near catastrophe or a painful collision may precipitate the blocking. Perhaps, observing such events happening to another was the precipitating condition. More often, however, the cause is difficult to pinpoint. Our research shows that blocking has a number of predictable characteristics (Feigley, Robbins & Berger, 1989):
- it generalizes backwards within a sequence of skills. For example, blocking on the back somersault phase of the roundoff, back handspring, back somersault sequence quickly spreads to the back handspring and frequently to the round-off itself.
- it generalizes across skills. For example, a problem on the back salto on the beam quickly spreads to a back salto on the floor and/or to a back walkover on the beam or the floor.
- Athletes susceptible to blocking have similar characteristics. They are:
- very bright
- fast learners, at least initially.
Their high intelligence and rapid rate of learning often results in their learning skills without learning intermediate steps. This characteristic has been noted as a possible cause or factor related to a cause in a study of trampolinists (Day, Thatcher, Greenlees & Woods (2006).
The reactions of coaches also follows predictable patterns. At first, they are patient, providing encouragement and understanding to the gymnast. When that approach fails to solve the problem, they become impatient and irritable, often leading to confrontations as the coach “demands” the performance which both the coach and the athlete know is well within the athlete’s physical capacity.
After all, the definition of blocking is that the gymnast has already performed the skill successfully, often for long periods of time before the blocking occurred. Frequently, the coach will “back off,” giving the gymnast several days or weeks to “get away from the problem.” When the problem still persists, the confrontational style begins again.
Psychological blocking typically evolves through three major stages. At first, the problem is simply being unable to perform the skill. That inability may be a specific fear of injury or more commonly it involves a vague unspecified fear. Sometimes, the cause appears to result from small bio-mechanical errors that are so small that they are not recognized by the gymnast or coach.
These tiny errors do not prevent the execution of the skill in a practice setting such as a back handspring performed on a low, wide practice beam but become major debilitating factors when performed on the 4” wide high beam where the margin for error is much smaller and the hand placement on the beam changes the gymnast’s base of physical support.
The block is often accompanied by an inability to visualize the performance of the skill. The second phase, which usually develops weeks or months after the initial blocking continues, involves emotionally conditioned negative affect, a form of classical conditioning. The anger, shame and guilt which arise from the inability to perform a skill previously mastered becomes associated with specific, naturally occurring cues associated with that skill; e.g., the balance beam itself elicits shame and avoidance because it is the site where repeated failures to perform have occurred when the gymnast blocks on a back handspring on the beam.
The agitation experienced by the gymnast may come from 1) a loss of face before the coach, an authority figure; 2) embarrassment from the public failure before teammates and parents; and/or 3) from their own personal confusion about “I could do before; why not now?” Athletes suffering from this problem regularly express a dislike of having others watch them while they are struggling with the problem.
The third phase develops after month or years of dealing with the same problem. The gymnasts begin to make negative attributions about their ability or their courage. Questions such as “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why can’t I do this, especially when my teammates can?” begin to morph into statements about personal ability or self-worth. They gradually become “I’m not good enough” or “I’m a coward” or I’m a mess.” Such negative attributions are much more difficult to eliminate after the gymnast has made such negative self-judgments over a prolonged period of time and the evidence of their failures is literally “right in front of them.”
Frankly, we do not know what causes psychological blocking. The cause remains a mystery despite some educated guesses. What we do know is that blocking is more frequent than commonly thought and that it occurs in other sports such as springboard/tower diving and trampolining. It’s called the Lost Move Syndrome by trampolinists (Tenn, 1995a, 1995b). We also know that it is easily compounded by the two additional problems described above: The classically conditioned negative emotional responses and the negative self appraisals.
Collins, Morriss and Trower (1999) studied the recovery of elite level skill in javelin throwers. The sport they examined was quite different from gymnastics but the goal of the athletes to recover a previously lost skill was quite similar. They suggested three possible causes. First, an athlete might be actively inhibiting the skill because of fear of injury. That is an intuitively appealing answer for gymnasts but what little research is available suggests that fear of injury is not the primary cause (Day, Thatcher, Greenlees, & Woods, 2006). Using a semi-structure interview technique with 15 high-level trampolinists, Day et al. (2006) found repeated comments that fear of injury was not uppermost in the trampolinists’ minds. One such illustrative comment was “I never thought I’d hurt myself. I was scared of the move, not what might happen afterwards (Page 161).”
Second, the disruption might arise from the athlete’s attempts to exert too much conscious control on what would normally be a highly automated task. The classic description of “paralysis by analysis” might be at least a partial causal explanation. A major shortcoming of this explanation is that gymnasts regularly complain that they cannot visualize the skill (Feigley, 2001; 1985). Overanalysis presumably requires the ability to picture or at least think about the movement skill.
Third, Collins et al. (1999) suggested that the blocking might be related to the athletes’ inability to access the motor program for the desired skill. While this cause is consistent with motor learning research, because it relies on internal, theoretical motor schema, it has little practical value for coach. The following suggested recommendations are a program, not a quick fix.