In a traditional approach, there are specific techniques to help you deal with fears as an athlete. These include “positive self-talk” where you practice coaching yourself through your fear in a positive way, “thought stopping” where you learn to stop the negative, fear-related thoughts, “mental rehearsal” or visualization in which you visualize yourself safely and correctly doing your scary skills while feeling calm and confident, using positive performance cues or “mental choreography” where you have keywords that you repeat in your head, concentration training to help you focus on what you want to have happen, and relaxation techniques to help you calm your fears down.
While all of these skills are really useful for you to have in your mental toughness toolbox, they rarely, if ever, help the fearful athlete who is stuck. For these tools to be effective, they have to be consciously used. That is, you have to remember to employ them. But the problem is that fear usually comes up instantly and powerfully, and no conscious techniques will really work to calm you down.
This is exactly what happens when you try to use positive self-talk. You can tell yourself all kinds of positive things like, “You’ve got this!” or “You can do it!” However all of this positive self-talk is totally ineffectual in the face of your fears. It just doesn’t work and you’re left feeling like you can’t get your body to do what it knows how to do.
We can say that there is one basic strategy for mastering fears: MOVE TOWARDS THEM! Fear feeds on one thing and one thing only: AVOIDANCE. The more you avoid something you’re afraid of, the more your fear grows. To master fear, you have to do the thing that you’re afraid of, a little bit at a time, over and over again and eventually you’ll get more comfortable, calm down and be able to do that fearful skill. However, both you and I know that this is a whole lot easier said than done!
Related to this technique is the EAT AN ELEPHANT strategy for handling fear. You know the riddle: how do you eat an elephant? Answer: one bite at a time. If you take a huge scary obstacle or goal and chunk it down into smaller building block skills, then little by little, you will master it! It’s the “inch by inch, anything’s a cinch. Yard by yard, it may be too hard” concept.
As an overall strategy for working with your fears, the EAT AN ELEPHANT strategy is critical for you to use with what I’m going to teach you to help calm your nervous system down and get over your block. The small steps that you take are very important in gradually helping you feel safer and safer. The trick, however, as you use this strategy, is to not get angry, impatient and/or frustrated with yourself whenever you have to take a step or two backwards, which you will always have to do in this overall process.
Overcoming fear is always a step or two forward, one step back kind of thing and what’s most important is how you REACT whenever the steps back occur!
Keep in mind that the steps backwards you may find yourself taking are absolutely normal and don’t EVER mean that you’re back where you got started.
If you get too scared to do something, don’t impatiently turn on yourself! Do something that feels just a little safer. If you take steps to patiently help yourself feel just a little safer whenever you’re scared, then your trained performance skills will reactivate by themselves. However, if you ignore that you’re feeling afraid and angrily berate yourself, then you will get more and more frightened and more and more stuck!
For more information about overcoming fears and strategies to beat performance blocks for good, check out my article, “Overcoming Performance Fears and Blocks” or my mental toughness products. Feel free to contact me anytime!