Sooner or later, everyone who takes up a martial art over a long period of time will come up against some sort of mental block. They’ll come across some technique that they understand logically, and there is no physical impediment to doing it, but for some reason or another can’t seem to make their body do the technique in question. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially if the technique is seemingly simple and the majority of people have no trouble at all doing it. This feeling is exacerbated the longer the block exists, so it’s important not to sweep them under the carpet and avoid them.
Why Mental Blocks Are Hard to Overcome
Usually mental blocks exist because of some prior experience that has taught you to do or not do things a certain way. A block is stronger if it’s associated with a protective/survival instinct. For example, I recently started learning parkour and I had a mental block when it came to doing what is known as the kong vault (seen in the instructional video below made by the school I train at). I kept being told by my training partner that I needed to plant my arms deeper on the obstacle and let my momentum carry my hips and legs up higher than my head, rather than using my arms to pull my legs up and over. I understood this logically and could see the mistake I was making, but part of me felt much less safe doing it the proper way. This was incredibly frustrating for me because I’m used to learning physical things like this relatively easily. I had no trouble doing other vaults that were in many ways more challenging to learn, but this one vault presented a mental block for me.
I suspect the block goes all the way back to when I was a child and was afraid to put my head down into the water when I dove into the pool, or even when I performed a front crawl. This fear came from a bad swimming experience I had when I was around 3 years old. I had been a water baby up till that age, but then I fell into the pool one time and couldn’t keep my head above water. Someone had to rescue me and my swimming instructor coddled me in my fearful state for the rest of the summer. I had problems putting my head in the water for years afterward, and it wasn’t until I hit grade 5 that I finally got past it.
There was something about the kong vault that reminded me of this feeling. I felt like if I used the method I was being shown that I would fall on my face, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary in seeing other people being able to do it successfully, as well as the assurances of the instructor. My conscious mind accepted the facts, but I knew that I still had to take steps to convince my subconscious mind that the proper methods were safe.
As you can see from my own example, there can be deep-seated reasons for the existence of a block. The deeper they are, the more challenging it can be to get past them. Just “practicing” the way others do, may not be enough. As my Sensei always said, practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. And if you have a block that keeps you from doing a technique right, you’ll just reinforce it if you don’t take active measures to get past it. There are several ways to approach getting past a mental block, from my experience:
1. Increasing Body Awareness. Sometimes you think you’re doing what you’re told to do, but in reality you’re only going halfway into what is being asked. This was true for me in my attempts to do the kong vault. I thought I was leaning into my hands and letting my legs come up, but I was under-committing to the action to a level that felt safer to me. Taking videos is one method make yourself more aware so you can compare it against proper technique. For some physical movements, an instructor can physically guide you through the correct positions. I often do this for students who are struggling to find the right alignment when performing joint locks. Sometimes the technique can be broken down into simpler movements to make it easier for the student to get the feel for the technique. My instructor’s video above, gives some good examples of this for learning the kong vault. Getting regular feedback from your training partner (if relevant) or an instructor is a good idea while you’re working through a block to help you be more aware when you’re straying from proper technique.
2. Making It Safe. If the reason why you’re struggling with a mental block is because it doesn’t feel safe, it’s a good idea to take additional measures for you to attempt it in a safer context. With my kong vault, I initially felt like I would fall on my face if I tried it the proper way, so we set up an obstacle next to a foam pit with a landing pad on it so I could “fall on my face” without fear. I was able to try the proper form and even if I didn’t land it properly there was pretty much no chance of hurting myself. I did fall forward a few times, but this helped me to gain a better feel for the technique and gain enough confidence to eventually try it without the foam pit. In Jiu-jitsu, breakfalls often make people feel worried for their safety, which can be dangerous as under-committing to a breakfall can often lead to improper landing position, causing a worse impact on the body. Without a crash pad, there are still ways to make breakfall practice safer. They can be practiced lower to the ground, from one’s knees, or from a crouched position. If from a throw, a more skilled thrower can help control their partner’s falling position, by slowing down or adjusting within the throw.
3. GIVE’R!!! After you’ve been practicing something for a while, your subconscious mind will be ready to attempt the proper technique to its fullest. Your body and mind is confident in the technique, and your 95% of the way there, but there is one last little hump to get past. This is the time when you have to just “give’r” and have faith that it will work. In my case with the kong vault, my training partner suggested I dive into a deeper hand position on the obstacle to give myself more momentum. Mentally, this scared me a little on some level, but on another level, I felt like even if I didn’t quite get it right, I’d be able to recover in a way that didn’t hurt me. So I gave myself a mental push and launched myself into it. And it worked! And as I finished the first kong vault like this, I had the “AHA!” moment in which I finally realized what everyone had been telling me. It seemed so simple I couldn’t believe I had struggled so much to get there. Just giving it can be necessary for getting past the last bit of mental resistance. It worked for me because I had laid the ground work and was ready for it. Whatever technique you’re working on, especially if it involves safety issues, you may need more time before you can safely “give’r” so be sure to consult with your instructor if considering this type of action.
Some people are lucky and are mentally equipped to do techniques, like breakfalls, that cause fear for others. Children always seem to pick up breakfalls easily not having learned an association with injury and pain with regards to falling. And some adults have the physical confidence and body intuition that makes it easier. But for those who aren’t so privileged, if you have a competent and patient instructor, and you’re willing to put in the time and effort, it is possible to get past your mental block, and when you do so, you’ll feel an even greater sense of accomplishment than the person for whom the technique came to easily. I know I felt that when I finally nailed my kong vault consistently.
Did you ever have a mental block that you had to overcome in your martial arts training or other sport? If so, please share how you were able to do it in the comments.