How to get through Mental Blocks

It's the 2017 NBA draft and the Philadelphia 76ers find themselves with the number 1 pick.  They had their guy in mind, an all around player who had plenty of potential as a professional: Markelle Fultz.  Fast forward to now, and Fultz is experiencing a deep mental block in his shooting form, more commonly known in sports as "the yips."  A skill that he has performed many times in the past becomes suddenly difficult to perform.  Take a look at the way he is struggling to shoot his free throws here.  Fultz is not alone in his struggle.  Many more athletes have gone through the same frustrating situation.  MLB player Chuck Knoblauch suddenly and inexplicably had a difficult time throwing the ball to first base.  Mackey Sasser, former catcher for the New York Mets, couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher, something he had done a thousand times.  Almost every golfer who has played long enough has found the yips at some point.  It's interesting to talk about, but it's also serious enough to end careers.

So if mental blocks can take such a strong hold on the performing mind, how do we get rid of them?  You'll hear people say things like "just don't think about it."  Honestly... not thinking about something is one of the hardest things for our mind to accomplish.  If I tell you not to think of an elephant, you are most likely going to think of that big, gray elephant.  Mental blocks usually come from a trigger event.  Either you perform something badly, or you watch others perform something badly, and negative emotion has been associated with that action.  Sometimes that association is conscious and sometimes it's unconscious.  The more you then obsess with that action, the worse your yips get.

Step one is to gain awareness of your mental block and your trigger event, if possible.  Try to be as honest with yourself as possible.  Getting over mental blocks doesn't usually happen with the wave of that mythical magic wand.  It can be a very long process, depending on the depth of that mental block of course.  In the movie Tin Cup, the main character gets the yips while he's out on the range.  He can't get rid of them, so his caddie tells him to turn his hat backwards, put all of his change in one pocket, and put a tee behind one ear.  Suddenly the golfer is more worried about how he looks than what's going on with his swing and he hits the ball just fine.  I hate to spoil it for everyone it doesn't always happen that quickly and with that exact formula.

After the athlete gains some awareness about that mental block, the next step is to go through some relaxation training that will get rid of the irrational and negative statements that come with the yips.  Generally someone with a mental block uses self-talk such as "I'm never gonna get this" or "I really hope I don't have to do that again."  Every one of those negative statements needs to be replaced with something positive, something that doesn't involve the word "don't."  Remember that elephant I told you not to think about?  It doesn't go away by saying "don't think about it."  It goes away only when you replace it with something of your choosing.  Think of a tiger, a zebra, whatever you want.  That's what we're trying to do here.

Next is to become skilled in the art of mental imagery.  The terms Imagery and Visualization are often used interchangeably.  Good imagery occurs when you can use all of your senses and get as vivid as possible.  When someone is skilled at visualizing, the neurons in their brain fire just as if they are performing the action.  If I went up to a wall, asked you to imagine that it was a chalkboard, and ran my fingernails down in a scratching motion, many of you would cringe.  That's because you've experienced that feeling and your brain has the ability to recreate that situation.  For example, if Markelle Fultz asked me to help him use imagery to improve his free throws I would ask him to see the basket with other players in the lane, to hear the sound of the crowd and the sound of the ball going through the net, to smell the sweat on his jersey, and to feel the ball in his hands as well as a shot that is free of hitches or self-doubt.  If he developed a good script, he could use that positive image to experience success over and over.

Hopefully you never experience the yips, but you might now be more equipped if you ever do.  Maybe you can even help someone else who struggles with them.  As always, please let me know if you have any feedback or comments on anything I've written here.  If you find it interesting, I'd like to hear from you.  If you disagree with anything, I'd like to discuss that with you, also.


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