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Cheerleading/Overcoming Fear after Injury

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Question
My daughter is 10 years old and broke her arm on January 3rd doing her running round-off back handspring (in a fluke).  She snapped both bones in her right arm and was unable to tumble/cheer until March.  Once she was allowed back in the gym, she had to wear a wrist/arm brace for extra support until her arm was 100% healed.  She has developed a fear of throwing her back handspring in any way now and we (myself and her coaches) can't seem to get her worked through it.  She will not throw her running back at all and when doing her standing, she requires a hand on her back the whole time.  Her back handspring is just the same as it was before (perfect form) but she has it in her head that she is going to get hurt again.  She has thrown 1000s of them before and I know her body knows exactly what it is doing.

When we went to the doctor for the last time, he showed her an x-ray of her bones and told her that there is no way that she will ever break her arm in those spots again.  Her mental block has gotten so bad that when told that she would have to overcome her fear and throw her tumbling passes to be able to continue on her competitive cheer team, she made the decision to give it up even though she loves it more than anything.

I fear as her mom that if I let her quit now, she will never overcome her fear and regret it later.  She is 1 year from trying out for her middle school cheer team which has been her dream since Kindergarten.  Please give me some suggestions on how to help her through what is all in her mind.

Answer
Well, I have some good news and bad news for you. Good news is that you and your daughter are not alone. Many, many kids go through this. I coached a girl who started tumbling when she was 4 and had a round off, back handspring, back tuck. One day she saw a football player land on his head and get a concussion. After that she was too scared to even do a back bend, let alone tumble. I also coached a girl who broke her arm before cheerleading started. Even though she was completely healed (months before cheerleading started and didn't require a brace at all), she wanted to wear one when we stunted. We let her, but for years she favored that arm. She was a back spot and wouldn't catch people if they fell to that side, she couldn't tumble very well (she never had much tumbling to begin with, but she wasn't strong enough because she was always favoring that arm). We always asked if she was afraid she'd get hurt again and she said no. She had no idea she was even favoring it. So the good news is, your daughter is aware of her fear. That is a plus. It cuts out one step of the process.

The bad news is that the main "cure" for this type of thing is time. She won't throw it again until she is ready and unfortunately some people never get ready again. I was one of those people. Now, I doubt your daughter will be like me. I barely had a round off and my back handspring was very ugly. I never even got hurt, I just freaked out and quit doing it. And I was 17! So I think the fact that your daughter is young and it seems fairly talented in the tumbling department will go a long way.

There are a few things to be aware of when trying to work through a mental block. First, it frustrates everyone including your daughter. She's probably thinking about it all the time, even if she's not aware of it. If she's afraid she's going to get hurt she's telling herself something along the lines of "If I throw this by myself I'll get hurt." The brain, although logically knows that is fear talking, takes this as literal instructions. That's how mental blocks form. Since the brain believes that it is actually true that if she throws it by herself she'll get hurt it goes into survival mode and won't let her throw it. And the same goes for kids who say "It's going to take me like 4 hours to finish studying for this test." The brain thinks that's an instruction instead of just complaining or exaggerating. It's weird, there's some scientific explanation there that I don't understand, but all I know is it's true. The good news is it can work the other way around as well. If she says to herself, "I'm going to do this perfectly," as long as she believes it, the brain will take that as instructions and then do the back handspring perfectly.

I never bought into the idea of visualizing yourself doing something. But then someone explained to me that the brain cannot tell the difference between your body actually performing the skill and just visualizing your body doing it. So if you visualize yourself doing it your brain actually believes you have done it. Ask your daughter if she's ever practiced a dance or something in her head. She probably has and it's gotten better even if she didn't physically perform it. The brain still thought she was performing it because she was visualizing it. Like I said, I didn't believe this, but I finally got so frustrated with myself I was willing to try anything so I gave it a shot. And it wasn't a miracle cure, but within a couple weeks, it definitely helped. I was a mental case about twisting out of stunts, and it helped a LOT.

Remember that even if your daughter takes a break from the squad she is on perhaps there is a lower level team she could participate in. Of course the skills would be less challenging, but she would be with other kids working on tumbling and sometimes it takes the pressure off. Or sometimes knowing you have a full season where you don't need that round off backhandspring is enough to get it to come back. I know it won't help with the middle school team, but hopefully it would help and she could make it the next year?

I know this probably isn't what you wanted to hear. But the brain is a tricky thing. A mental block is frustrating (especially if nothing caused it!). But in the case of your daughter there is an injury that caused it. She probably favors that arm without even knowing it in every day life as well. She probably carries books in the other hand, pushes doors open with the other hand, etc. And I doubt she knows she does it. It's just the body's way of protecting itself. Slowly she'll get past that as her body realizes she has healed and that will go a long way towards helping this mental block.  

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Chris

Expertise

I can answer questions on partner stunts, dismounts, basket tosses, choreography, pyramids, jumps, motions, chants, and formations. I can answer questions on tryouts, coaching, general cheerleading, etc. I cannot answer questions on co-ed stunts/pyramids or tumbling. Aside from these areas I can usually answer, or direct you to an answer, on any other topic.

Experience

I've been cheerleading for 10 years. My teams consistently competed at the national level, placing many times. I've coached for the past 5 years, and the team I coached most recently became National Champions. I've cheered at the Pop Warner, High School, and All-Star levels. I coach alongside my mother and sister who have coached at the all-star level as well. I've been watching cheerleading since I was 4, and I can create routines, give advice, and help teach kids how to deal with competitions. I have a knack for coaching and giving advice. I'm always the coach designated to give the pep talks to the kids before competitions.

Education/Credentials
I have been living with cheerleading coaches for 10+ years which teaches more than anyone can imagine. I was captain of my Varsity High School squad which came with the responsibility of picking music, writing a cheer, creating and teaching the routine, and making the formations. I have also coached nationally ranked teams for 5 years.

Awards and Honors
Two-time All-State Cheerleader nominee All-State Class M Cheerleader Varsity Cheer Captain

Past/Present Clients
The 32 young girls I just helped coach to a national championship! :) It wasn't easy, but they'll all say the work was worth it in the end.

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