Mental Blocks in Athletes and How to Overcome Them


“Don’t let mental blocks control you. Set yourself free. Confront your fear and turn the mental blocks into building blocks.”

~Dr. Roopleen

Have you ever gone through a period (maybe you’re in one right now) where you know that you are perfectly capable of executing a skill, but for whatever reason, you just can’t do it? It’s not that you have never performed the skill, or haven’t learned it yet. You have legitimately done the skill hundreds of times, but you find yourself in this weird situation where you can’t even execute the most simple thing.

If this hasn’t happened to you before, have you seen it happen to someone else, or maybe to a pro athlete you watch on TV? It could be a historically high-percentage free throw shooter going through a period where they can’t get one in to save their life. It could be a pitcher going through a period where they can’t find the strike zone, no matter what. It could be a volleyball player going back and not being able to serve over the net.

These mental blocks happen to many athletes, across all disciplines. I have seen them happen to a lot of my teammates over the years, from not being able to set a ball or tip a ball over the net, to not being able to serve. It has happened to me, too.

My mental block is something that I refer to as “Robo Arm,” and it started when I was in the 12th grade. It earned this name because my arm would get very tight and rigid, and I felt like I was moving it like a robot. This mental block of mine started with serving. When it started, I had been serving for almost 10 years with no problems and no worries whatsoever. Then, one day I just could not float serve. I didn’t know why or how, but every single time I stepped back to the service line, Robo Arm kicked in and I couldn’t get it over the net. Here’s a little secret….. Most people think I jump served indoor because I was really good at it. That was definitely a big part of why I did it, but another reason was that, for the longest time, I was too scared to float serve.

Eventually, Robo Arm expanded its reach into my partner warmups (I quickly became the least favoured pepper partner) and my arm would get tight with something as simple as hitting a ball at my partner. I didn’t know why this was happening to me, and I was too embarrassed to talk to anyone about it, so my mental block lasted for a very long time.

After dealing with this problem for a while, I started to develop anxiety about it. Whenever I thought about going to practice, I would dread the partner warmup, and I would panic at the chance that I would have to float serve. It would consume my thoughts, and something that usually brought me so much joy started causing me a lot of stress. I knew that I needed to figure out why it was happening, and how to fix it.

With a lot of reflection, I came up with the following reasons why Robo Arm was happening to me:

  1. I was overthinking every time I went back to serve or played pepper. Things that used to be natural and easy started having a lot of thought behind them.
  2. I was embarrassed about my struggles.
  3. I was putting a lot of emphasis on what other people were thinking about me.
  4. In an attempt to fix it, I was trying too hard to be perfect.

After identifying several reasons why my mental block was hanging around for so long, I came up with some strategies to help me get past it. If you are having similar difficulties, hopefully these can help you too.

Overcoming Mental Blocks

Positive Self-Talk

If your self-talk is negative, and you are telling yourself that you will fail at something, you probably will. Conversely, if you are telling yourself that you will succeed, and that you are capable of doing X/Y/Z, it becomes much easier to believe what you are saying, and to actually execute.

It’s Ok to Make Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. If you happen to make an error doing something you are uncomfortable doing (in my case, serving), it’s not because you are terrible at it, or because you can’t. Sometimes mistakes just happen. Don’t jump to conclusions if you make a couple of errors. Keep your routine, and do the same thing next time. Chances are, it will be fine.

Managing Expectations

I wrote about managing expectations in a previous post here. One of the big things for me, that I still think about now, is that no one notices your mistakes as much as you do. Most of the time, people probably aren’t even paying attention. Instead of being embarrassed, or getting worried about what people are thinking about you, do whatever you need to do to execute your skill in your way. That could be a reminder that you tell yourself before a play, an extra deep breath, or a change in routine. Do whatever you need to do to feel good, and remember that you are the only one who notices.

Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes

Whenever I would struggle with partner drills, I would ask myself this: “If I was doing everything fine, and my partner was struggling, would I be getting mad?” The answer was always no. If my partner was trying their best, I would never be mad, so that helped me relax about my own insecurities. Asking yourself how you would react in a similar situation will help you realize that your insecurities aren’t as terrible as you perceive them to be.

Force Yourself to do Things You are Uncomfortable With

Sometimes, you just have to pull the trigger, and force yourself to do the skill you are avoiding, or are uncomfortable with. Consistently practicing it, and making yourself execute it in various situations will help you regain confidence. Avoiding it is not the answer. Get out there and prove to yourself that you have what it takes!

Talking myself through these things led to me being able to overcome a big mental block that plagued me for quite a while. In beach, I float serve all the time! Mental blocks are not fun, and sometimes they don’t have a clear explanation. They happen to a lot of people, though, in all levels of sport. Identifying how and why you feel the way you do when it happens, and trying different strategies to overcoming it, are how you can come out the other side. Once you make it through something like a mental block, it becomes much easier to take on other challenges that you may face in the future.

xo, Sarah

This article originally appeared here.

About the Author: Olympian Sarah Pavan, is a Canadian indoor & beach volleyball player, who most recently represented her country on the golden beaches of Rio. Sarah has been playing indoor volleyball for over twenty years, and has been representing Canada a the elite level since 2001.  Follow Sarah on her Instagram, on Twitter and online.