Fear of Injury
Dear Dr. Sam,
My daughter has been competing in gymnastics for 5 years. Recently, she moved up a level, and this required a more complex set of skills. The beam has always been her favorite event, but when practicing a new skill, she fell off the beam. She wasn’t seriously injured, but she was shaken up a bit emotionally. She started coming up with reasons as to why she didn’t want to go to gymnastics practice, and when my husband and I started asking questions, it became apparent that she is afraid to perform the new skill on the beam. I don’t want to force her to go, but I also don’t want to let her quit when something gets difficult. Do you have any advice?
I am so sorry to hear about your daughter’s experience. Fear (often referred to as “mental blocks”) are common after an injury or when an athlete is placed in a potentially dangerous situation. For that reason, many people have heard of this acronym for fear: Forget Everything And Run.
So what can you do if your child is in this situation? Your first instinct was a good one. Have a conversation and try to get them to articulate what is going on. What, specifically, are they afraid of? What do they fear will happen to them? What is the worst-case scenario? Talking about and naming the fear can take some of its power away. It’s also helpful to recognize that we are fearful for a reason. Fear protects us from danger. That danger may be real or perceived, but it feels very real to the person experiencing it.
Next, I highly recommend Alan Goldberg’s book Sports Slump Busting: 10 Steps to Mental Toughness and Peak Performance. The fourth chapter in his book is devoted to this exact topic. In it, he suggests the following steps to defeating fear:
- Move toward the fear,
- Break up the fear,
- Reframe the fear,
- Change the focus of concentration,
- Challenge the fear’s logic, and
- Create distance from the fear
In this column, I don’t have the space to delve into each of these (plus, I really think you should read the book), so I will provide some key points from Dr. Goldberg as well as some things that have been effective in my work with athletes.
Much of the time, the fear is irrational or illogical. Having a conversation about it can often help. The question that I find effective is: “What is your evidence for that?” For example, your daughter might say, “I am afraid that if I do that skill, I will fall. And if I fall, I might break a bone.” When asking her for her evidence, she might say that she has already fallen and sustained a minor injury. What if it is worse next time? However, she has already fallen, and she did NOT get seriously injured. She certainly didn’t break any bones. In fact, I would argue that she has learned that she can fall and not get hurt. For this reason, Goldberg likes this acronym for fear: False Education that Appears Real.
Another way to look at the fear is that it is an indication that you are in new territory, or out of your “comfort zone.” It’s only natural to be nervous or afraid when you are in a new situation. It happens to all of us! Have your daughter think back to all the times she was nervous or fearful about a new situation. Perhaps it was the first day of school, taking a test, competing for the first time. How did those things turn out, and are they as scary today as they were the first time?
It can also help to break the new skill into smaller pieces. Perhaps her coach could help with this? She could start with the first part of the skill and only move to the next part when she feels comfortable. Another way that gyms do this is to start with tape on a mat before proceeding to the beam. From there, maybe the next step would be to perform the sill on a low beam. As the beam moves up, it is also helpful to have a foam pit, etc.
In these types of situations, I also like to use imagery. The more she can see herself successfully performing the skill in her mind, the stronger the neural pathways in her mind become. When people talk about “muscle memory,” they are often referring to the neural pathways in the brain. She may need to chunk the skill down in her mind as well because it may be difficult to see herself completing the entire skill successfully. If this becomes too difficult, perhaps first watching a video of someone executing the skill will help her to see it in her mind.
I also have had some success in using imagery to go back and replay the initial fall. This time, though, she changes the ending; she sees herself succeed. When using imagery, try to get her to use all of her senses, and try to have her get as relaxed as possible. Speaking of relaxation, some stress management techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or meditation can help with fear as well.
Lastly, I want to note that some injuries can be traumatic to athletes. There is some evidence that athletes who sustain injuries respond physiologically and emotionally similar to individuals involved in car accidents. Some of these individuals may go on to have trauma-related challenges. What I shared above is not intended to be used for athletes who have sustained physical or psychological trauma. In those cases, the fear should be addressed by a licensed clinician.
I hope this helped, and as always, please let me know how things go. Also, if you are reading this and have had success with other strategies, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to tweet @ me or send me an email.
Dr. Sam Maniar is the Founder & President of the Center for Peak Performance, LLC, where he and his team provide sport psychology and business consultation. He has worked with thousands of professional, college, and school-aged athletes and teams, including the Cleveland Browns, Ohio State Buckeyes, and the Chicago Cubs. If you would like Dr. Sam to answer your question in a future column, send it via Twitter to @sam_maniar (also be sure to use the hashtag #AskDrSam) or email questions to email@example.com, and use “Ask Dr. Sam” as the subject.