Fear can often become a catalyst that propels athletes into a slump and keeps them stuck there. The batter in a slump is afraid of not getting a hit. The gymnast stuck on a back hand-spring is afraid of moving backward. The swimmer who seems to “die” at the end of all her races is afraid of “it” happening again. Fear is what’s at work in all of these performance slumps.In order to bust that slump and get yourself back on track, you have to face up to these fears and defeat them. There are three important elements in beating fear, each of which I will address in this mini-series, and today we’ll focus on the first step: recognizing fear’s various guises.
How to Recognize Fear
It’s a good bet you’ve been afraid at one time or another in your life. Fear is a universal experience with both positive and negative consequences. In dangerous situations, fear can make you appropriately cautious and lead you to take actions that save your life. In most athletic situations, which aren’t inherently life threatening, fear simply short-circuits appropriate responses and causes you to perform poorly.
The experience of fear is a blending of physiological changes, emotions, and a special kind of thinking. You perceive fear in the environment and feel it in your body as the “fight or flight” response, characterized by faster and more shallow breathing, a rush of adrenaline, tightened muscles, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, increased sweating, dry mouth, and cold hands and feet. The emotional experience of fear is felt as anxiety or a sense of unease and dread. Mentally you can recognize that you’re afraid because your thoughts start singing the what-ifs and your imagination provides the backup vocals.
The physiological and emotional experience of fear is compelling enough to be impossible to miss. However, the what-ifs within your thoughts may be so habituated by now that you may fail to recognize them for the destructive force that they are. The what-ifs generate your fears because they lock your attention on the future and give free reign to your imagination. Under stress, your imagination exaggerates the object of your fear. It takes what you think could go wrong, the possible, and magnifies it to absurd extremes, the improbable. This is called “catastrophizing.”
For example, it’s late in the game with the opponent’s runners in scoring position. You’re at shortstop, catastrophizing. “If I boot the next ball, a run will score, and we’ll fall behind. If that happens, we’ll probably lose, and it’ll be all my fault! My error will get me benched and cause the coach to lose confidence in me. I’ll probably lose my edge. Oh, no, if I can’t start, no college scouts will get a chance to see me. I won’t get that scholarship I’ve been killing myself for these past six years. Without that scholarship, I won’t go to college and my life will be over… I’m such a loser. I hope he doesn’t hit it to me.”
While all these awful occurrences are possible, most of them are not probable. Entertaining the improbable in this manner always generates fear. Furthermore, the future painted by your imagination is a huge uncontrollable. When you focus on uncontrollables, you’ll only make yourself more anxious and less confident.
Beating fear starts with an awareness that reciting the what-ifs to yourself will always lead you to the oh nos: “Oh no, I choked again!” “Oh no, another hitless game!” Oh no, I did miss the shot!” Too many slumping athletes have “inner poets” who recite these fear-inspiring what-ifs to themselves before and during their performances. How would you feel if you regularly listened to your own version of the following poem the night before your big game?
As the match approaches I began to think
What if I choke? What if I stink?
I could double-fault or land on my head,
What if we lose or my legs feel like lead?
The refs could be blind, missing each call,
What if I drop or bobble the ball?
The beam may be wobbly, the crowd much too big,
What if I get sick or miss a key dig?
My opponent could beat me, I might just get cut,
What if I get hurt or stay stuck in this rut?
The scouts are all here, I could play like a bum,
What if I strike out and no glory comes?
I know I should relax and just drift off to sleep,
But the what-ifs are endless, all the ways I could weep.
If your inner poet is hard at work scaring you, then silencing him starts with awareness. Are you in the habit of reciting the what-ifs to yourself or anyone else on the team who will listen? Take a moment to jot down all of your favorites. Get to know them. Fears need a steady diet of what-ifs to grow large and become disruptive. You can begin to starve and then eliminate your fears by recognizing and monitoring the future-based thinking that feeds them.
In part two of this mini-series, I will address the next element in beating fear: understanding it. And if you’d like to learn more strategies for overcoming fears and returning to peak performance, I recommend checking out my book, Sports Slump Busting!