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Cheer Articles

Tame the Beast: Don’t Let your Cheerleaders Drag Fear Into The New Season
Sep 01, 2014
By Alison Arnold Ph.D. and Sara Robinson M.A.

It's a new season, time to start fresh. There is probably nothing you’d like more then to start a new year without your cheerleaders bringing their old “friends” fear and balking back to the gym. As a coach, nothing frustrates you more than fear when you know your cheerleaders can do the skill; they are ready, or they have done it before. Perhaps they have even done it for years, and now they won’t do it no matter what you say or how much you jump up and down like a crazy person. Unfortunately this is a frustrating situation for your cheerleaders as well. Here are some tips to help your athletes tame the beast before they become one.

Tip #1: Know the Fear Beast

Is it a simple or complex fear? It’s helpful to put fear into one of two categories: simple or complex. Simple fears are easily explained. Learning a new stunt, recovering from a fall or injury, or watching another teammate get hurt or dropped are all situations where fear is easy to understand. Complex fears, on the other hand are less clear to comprehend. Examples include becoming scared or balking on stunts, tumbling skills or passes previously mastered; positional fears (i.e. they won’t tumble backwards, or “can’t” twist), repeating fears that seem to come and go, or you have no idea why it’s happening. Complex fears are not very logical and trying to rationalize with the athlete about why they are having the fear, and that they shouldn’t be scared, is usually not very productive and may result in tears on both sides! Although treatment of both types of fears is virtually the same, it’s nice to know what type of beast you are dealing with.

Tip #2: Lock down the Mind

Many fears come from out of control thinking. “I’m gonna fall,” “What if they drop me?, ”“What if I stop rotating in the middle?,” “I can’t go and I don’t know why” are all common proclamations of the fear beast. Rhythmic key words (Also known as mental choreography), singing, counting, or repeating a phrase like “this is easy for me” keeps the mind busy and distracted so the fear beast has less opportunity to rear its ugly head. Be sure your athletes say these words with consistency both in practice and performances. Have them say the words or phrases out loud if they seem particularly stuck. Key words help the mind become more robotic and less emotional and a “more robo less emo” mind helps to block out the beast.

Tip #3: Get the Heart involved

The sure cure for fear is DESIRE. When desire becomes stronger than fear, your cheerleaders will begin to defeat the beast. Have your athletes create a heart statement they say to themselves before every attempt to perform the skill(s) they are scared of. A heart statement can be their biggest goal, (“Do it for Worlds,” “Do it for tryouts,”) or a personal dedication (“This is for grandma,” “This is for my squad”). The heart statement should be so powerful and meaningful that it becomes a strong motivator to push through fear, and may cause a little discomfort if the statement is activated and the athlete is still not successful at taming the fear beast.

Tip #4: Bankrupt the Beast

The mind is a confidence bank with every attempt at the skill serving as a deposit or withdrawal. Increase the amount of deposits by having your cheerleaders each create a Confidence Ladder. A confidence ladder is a progressions ladder where an athlete can take full control and responsibility for their performance. Each rung on the ladder is a progression toward doing the skill and the number of confidence building repetitions they would like to do at each level. The top rung is completing the skill, in the routine without a spot and the bottom rung is an arm set with key words standing in place, visualizing the skill. The ladder has a few rules as well. The athlete must say their words every time, if they balk twice they back down a rung and complete the entire number on the previous rung, completing the skill within 10 seconds. Helping an athlete do the skill and build up repetitions quickly is extremely effective in building the confidence bank. Balking is a withdrawal. The purpose of the confidence ladder is to break the balking cycle and keep the athlete moving forward. Be sure to withdraw attention when they move back down a rung (do not be punitive however) and praise, praise, praise when they move up.

Tip #5: Battle the Beast

Learning to disconnect and fight back to the negative voice is an essential beast-taming skill. Sometimes it takes a while for athletes to realize that what the beast is saying to them isn’t true! Or if it is true, it’s very unlikely. Help your athletes become more aware of their beast thoughts by writing them out. It can be a release just to get those thoughts out of their heads. Then help them to separate from their thoughts by learning to laugh at the thoughts, ignore the thoughts, or even fight back! When their mind says they can’t go for their double full, they need to be able to tell that beast a thing or two about how bad they want this skill and that they KNOW they can do it! Use the formula S.B.H.T.Go! to battle the beast. When they have a beast thought, they begin by saying to their beast STOP! Then have them take a deep BREATH of confidence, say their HEART statement, and flood their mind with as many positive, TIGHT MIND thoughts as possible. Then they Go! It is surprising how many cheerleaders have trouble fighting back against the fear beast, but with practice, they can learn to do it. It’s important they regularly give their beast less power by looking at it objectively and staying true to athlete they know they are.

Tip #6: Be the Shrink

Many times a fear beast is simply a symptom of deeper issues. Here is a list for you to think about in order to understand if your cheerleader needs more support. If one or more of these are present, talk to the athlete and the parents about what you are seeing.

  • Feeling too much pressure.
  • Worrying about having to be perfect.
  • Parents over-involved.
  • Moving too fast on skills or tumbling without proper progressions.
  • Family crisis or changes.

If these issues occur, many times it's the coach's job to create the opposite feeling in the athlete. For example, if there is too much pressure from home, the coach might need to reduce pressure in the gym, or if there is family instability, the coach might have to help the athlete feel safe in the cheer gym environment.

Following these six tips may not entirely stop the Fear Beast taking over your cheerleader, but always remember: a joyful athlete has a better chance of beating fear than a miserable one. Keep inspiring, and keep believing!

Dr. Alison Arnold (Doc Ali) has been the mental toughness coach to USA Gymnastics Since 1997. Sara Robinson, M.A. is a consultant with HeadGames Mental Toughness Training. Their new program FEAR - Tame the Beast and information about their Online Mental Toughness Training Program for cheerleaders is available at www.headgames.ws. Have a cheerleader who could use Mental Toughness Training? Visit www.headgameswebcamp.com/2weeks for a free two-week trial.