“Learn to Handle the Heat” (usatriathlon.org)

By Cheryl D. Hart

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.

The transition area before a race reminds me of a pressure cooker.  It’s typically packed with triathletes ready to explode from nerves, excitement and energy.

heatHave you ever been so nervous before a race that you felt sick to your stomach and wondered how the professionals handle the pressure of competition? With all the media attention, prize money on the line, and sponsors and spectators from around the world watching with awe and expectation, it’s amazing that they can maintain confidence and composure. I’m going to share a little secret: Sometimes they don’t. Even Olympians can struggle with competitive anxiety.

Two equally talented athletes can approach the same event with totally different perspectives. One perceives it as a threat to his ego (fear of failure), whereas the other perceives it as an opportunity for personal growth. How one assesses the situational demand determines the level of arousal or anxiety, and consequently the performance. The more important the competition, the more stressful it is. This escalates an athlete’s feeling of uncertainty and insecurity about the outcome and how he’ll be evaluated and judged by others. It’s essential to learn how to handle the stress of uncertainties and how to implement tools that equip you to stay calm and confident regardless of the situation. Effective anxiety management is the foundation to success, so competitions must be viewed in a positive light — as exciting and rewarding, rather than fearful and threatening.

Self-esteem lies at the heart of one’s perception of threat. If an athlete has a poor self-concept and low self-esteem, he’ll experience greater anxiety than an athlete with healthy self-esteem. Confident athletes believe in both their performance abilities and their ability to cope with the pressure of competition. Mentally tough athletes accept that competitive anxiety is inevitable and that they can cope with it. Furthermore, when they do feel anxious, they interpret it in a constructive way. For instance, if their heart is racing, this translates into: “I am excited about this day, I’m ready, and I feel fully alive.” I recently read about an athlete who, when feeling butterflies in his stomach, commanded them to fly in formation. It’s not the feelings or symptoms of anxiety that create problems, but how they’re interpreted.

The first step in dealing with competitive pressure is to recognize your typical responses. There are a myriad of symptoms indicating increased anxiety, including clammy hands, frequent urination, negative self-talk, headache, increased muscle tension, and dry mouth.

When you assess that you are becoming overly aroused, the simplest, most effective coping strategy is to breathe. Sounds simple. But I don’t mean those short, shallow, nervous breaths — but deep, cleansing belly breaths, releasing any muscle tension in your body. Next, smile. Again, simple and powerful — sending a signal to your brain that everything is okay. 

Coaches can help create a supportive atmosphere, by encouraging athletes to openly express their feelings of apprehension. They can also implement “stress-inoculation,” an effective simulation training technique used to help athletes learn how to effectively deal with stress. For example, Michael Phelps’ coach frequently created situations in practices or races of lesser importance to help Phelps gain confidence by developing appropriate responses to unexpected, uncontrollable mishaps.  Before one meet, his coach deliberately stepped on Phelps’ goggles causing them to fill with water during the race. This prepared Phelps when coincidentally the same thing occurred during an Olympic event. Undeterred, he won another gold medal. 

Be prepared. Come to the race with a clear, specific goal that’s self-referenced, and stick to it. Don’t compare yourself to others but use your own pre-determined standard of excellence. And lastly, remember to keep it all in perspective. No matter what happens, it’s only a race. You don’t have to be a competitive triathlete. It was a choice, based on passion for your sport. Embrace that. If you have the courage to toe the line, that alone means you are a winner.

Cheryl Hart, M.S., owner of 2nd Wind Motivation and Hart to Heart Talk Show, is a Sport Psychology consultant, motivational speaker and instructor of Sport Psychology at the University of Louisville. Call (502) 693-7443, e-mail offrunnin@yahoo.com or visit http://www.2ndWindMotivation.com.

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