Much of what we used to know about fear and anxiety, we can toss in the trash can.
It isn't that we need to rethink fear, it's that we need to re-experience fear. We need to change our relationship to fear. Rethinking fear gets us back in our head about fear. Being in our head about fear is what created the problem in the first place.
For many people, the sensation that we call fear, anxiety or nerves (sometimes we call it stress), can stop us from proceeding with whatever we were doing at the time. Often, that sensation is experienced as something to avoid or something to stop. It's as if we can only resume what we were doing if that feeling of fear goes away (and stays away). If we resume the activity that produced that sensation and the feel comes back, we stop again. We wait for it to pass. Sometimes, we try to fight through the fear.
Rather than fighting, avoiding or stopping fear and anxiety, it is important to become curious (and more comfortable) about fear and anxiety. We need to become students of fear. We need to understand that uncomfortable feeling. We need to label that discomfort as a signal of excitement, alertness; a signal to pay attention, to activate. It is not necessarily a signal to stop or freeze.
Here are some guidelines for experiencing fear in a new way:
1. Fear is not to be eradicated.
2. Fear is a human emotion derived from being alive.
3. Fear is not a sign of weakness or incompetence.
4. Fear is not a hinderance to be fought or defeated.
5. Fear is part of the natural order of things.
In my experience, there are not too many athletes that use the words performance anxiety when discussing the challenges regarding their sport. However, the assessments that I have conducted over the years strongly suggest that athletes commonly experience many of the symptoms typically associated with performance anxiety.
Because ultimately the goal of mental toughness is to experience “no fear,” why would an athlete admit vulnerability and acknowledge performance anxiety? It is more likely that athletes will allow themselves to talk about building mental toughness, than acknowledge the legitimate existence of fear of any sort.
Let's face it. If you are human and if you are required to perform, you will experience fear, otherwise know as performance anxiety.
Human evolution produced the midbrain including the Amygdala. The midbrain was responsible for our survival by sending fast messages from our senses through neural transmission. These messages effectively alerted us to possible danger. They activated us to perform a flight or fight response. They were simple and primitive, because they had to be. They were not very discerning. The midbrain signals "Danger" or "Run Away Fast" or "Bite" or "Attack," nothing more.
Do you really want to eliminate that important function? Of course, not.
Most sports do not involve excessive danger. Even when danger is involved, you need focus not fear.
Many athletes try to not be anxious; however, this often backfires. Pre-competition excitement is necessary for peak performance. Re-assessing the internal sensations you feel in a positive way is important – rather than saying or thinking you’re anxious, remind yourself that this excitement prepare your body to perform at its best.
We humans have another part of our brain, the more complex pre-frontal cortex. That part of our brain does the thinking, complex problem-solving, long-term decision-making. The pre-frontal cortex interprets and evaluates more fully. However, it often interprets the "flight or fight" and it overreacts. Simply put, the cortex fears the fear. Fearing the fear is the response that we need to regulate and manage. That is the response over which we have some control. That is what mental conditioning focuses upon.
Mental conditioning makes you perform better so that your response to fear is not over-activated. The process of mental conditioning helps you learn to be activated, but aren't over-activated when your cortex evaluates the situation. It slows down your fear responses so that you can perform as planned and rehearsed.
One approach is to develop self-talk about what you are experiencing with statements like:
"I enjoy the challenge of competition."
“This feeling means I’m ready and prepared for the task at hand.”
“I’m excited about being able to play well today,”
“This is not anxiety, this is excitement, which means I’m going to perform at my best”
These types of statements help you reframe the fear and increase your focus. It also helps you manage your thoughts, rather than the thoughts managing you.
Other mental conditioning tools like mental imagery, visualization, breathing exercises and mindfulness approaches including relaxation techniques and meditation, are also very effective in activating our nervous system to perform without overreacting. In other words, they allow us to act without over-reacting. This conditioning dampens our fear reaction and produces the conditions for activation and excitement.
Your ability to dampen your fear response and reduce your performance anxiety, is a key component of strengthening your mental core.
I will be talking more about your mental core in future blogposts.