What to do when an athlete has a fear of the unknown – Gymnastics Coach
A young level 10 gymnast is having a difficult time executing a vault routine. She has been trying for a long time and has developed a belief that she is incapable of achieving success. Then suddenly one day on her first try executes the routine cleanly and successfully. She comes back the next day to try it again and the environment she had her previous success in has changed. The resi mat is no longer being used and is substituted with an equal height configuration of smaller mats. She can no longer even attempt the vault. She tries, but bails on the difficult part of the routine and is only able to have success with timers. Over and over again she tries to execute, but cannot. Three weeks has passed and she is still unable to execute the routine with the new mat configuration. She totally associates success with the previous mat configuration and because of her “fear of the unknown” is unable to attempt the vault any longer. It seems like she does not want to do the difficult “scary” skills for fear of the unknown. What can be done to help her execute the routine?
Coach John’s Answer:
The triggers that induce the fear have to do with “control of the environment, failure perception with the different environment, height of the mats, lack of repeatable success, and fear of the unknown.” In some respects she sees her inability to attempt the skill as punishment because she feels embarrassed not living up to her potential. The key to her success at this point is consistency in a belief system that is success based.
First, she needs to better understand the behavior supporting the negative belief system. Second, the extinction of the negative behavior is necessary to make room for a new success based belief system. Third, the imprinting of the alternative and believable new behavior is required to build the trust and confidence necessary to get her to follow through.
It is my belief she is afraid of what she doesn’t know, does not want to start all over again. She is afraid of the unknown and will not attempt her vault because she does not know what will happen in the new environment. The thought of doing something she has not attempted before freaks her out. Because she finally achieved success after so many failed attempts she is associating her success to the resi mat configuration and not to her ability to execute the skill. Without the exact configuration she not only is fearful, as before, she now feels like she has to start all over again and feel the pain and embarrassment associated with lack of success.
A fear based behavior has developed into a full blown negative belief system. Belief systems are most often not based on real events, but predictions of how events will happen. To extinguish this behavior we must take this one small step at a time even if it’s baby steps. The good news is that the extinction of the old and imprinting of the new behavior is absolutely doable.
We first have to extinguish the fear and negative belief system before we can imprint a new belief system based on success. To do this we have to give her a chance of success in very small increments.
The New Behavior Plan
1. Week 1: Start with the new mat configuration at the same height as the resi mat associated with her success.
2. Have her achieve success (3-4 times) at this base level. Then…
3. Drop the mat 6” have her attempt it again. Have her achieve success (3-4 times).
4. Drop the mat another 6” (in total we have dropped it 1 ft.)
(NOTE: Do not expect her to reach this level in one day or even in one week. Give her a week or two to accomplish this.)
The theory is based on the visual height increases being relatively unnoticeable so she will not fear the height, the unknown, or fear failure. The plan is to achieve enough success at one level that she will attempt the next level. The key, however is her not noticing the height changes. This is why I don’t think we should expect her to achieve more than 1 ft in any given day.
5. Week 2: have her attempt it again at the 1 ft lower level from previous week. Wait till she achieves success (3-4) times.
6. Drop the mat 6” and have her attempt the skill until she achieves (3-4) successes.
7. Drop the mat another 6” (we are now 2’ lower than week one.)
(NOTE: Do not expect her to reach this level in week two. It’s our goal to do so, but give her the flexibility to have another week to make it.
8. Week 3: start her off with the mat dropped 2 ft. Have her attempt the skill until she achieves success (3-4) times. If she detects a noticeable difference in height, then back off and return to the previous height of the mats where she did experience success. The objective is to imprint a new belief system based on the confidence and trust built over a period of incremental successes associated with her ability and not the height of the mats.
By this time the new “success oriented new belief system” should have sufficiently been imprinted and the old behavior (belief system) a vague and distant memory of the past.