Recently, I was fortunate enough to be on a skiing vacation in Austria, and it was within this majestic setting that I found the inspiration to write a small piece on what I believe is a fundamental psychological element of performance, or lack thereof. The element of FEAR.
Anyone who has been on a skiing holiday before will be very familiar with, and perhaps even experienced, the long “train” of avid beginner skiers being eagerly lead done the mountain by a skiing instructor. Watching these beginners treacherously navigate themselves through a labyrinth of experienced skiers , their bodies appear stiff as ice, all scrunched up and rigid, and their eyes (behind their skiing goggles) seem to be filled with a sense of reluctance that gets you wondering whether they are actually enjoying their time at all. Perhaps it is the sense of not being in complete control, the idea of falling and hurting oneself or hurting someone else, or even so the idea of embarrassment and shame, that is generating this perceived discomfort.
My inquisition got the best of me and after chatting to a few beginner skiers I soon realised that it is in fact these aforementioned points that they are afraid of, and that more often than not they are relieved to see the end of their mornings skiing lesson. This makes me wonder at times why people pay the kind of money they do just to be scared or afraid and thereafter relieved when it is all over. I then soon remembered that I too was once in this exact position 7 years ago when I picked up my snowboard for the first time. As with any new experience the only way we will ever really improve is by investing time into this experience. Understanding fear a little better may assist with improving this experience or at least the enjoyment of it.
The concerning factor at this point is that too many people are failing to understand the intricate connection between the mind and the body. Even those who seem to understand this connection on some level often lack the ability to apply it to their particular contexts. Too often, we fail to realise that the mind and the body live in a highly interrelated relationship whereby the actions and responses they experience or express have drastic effects on both entities. Understanding this relationship will help you realise that the fear that you are experiencing has a direct and very consequential effect on the body’s response and the resulting outcome ends up, a lot of the time, being negative which in turn further sharpens the initial fear. It is a vicious cycle and in my opinion looks a little like the figure depicted below. The fear causes a negative mindset. It instils in you elements of doubt, reluctance and lack of trust. Your body’s reference point for movement and reaction is the mind and therefore responds to these negative emotions by being rigid, tense, stiff and tentative. This “preparation” is negative and results in poor body movements (The physical skills required to successfully carry out the action are hindered). Therefore the resultant outcome (refer to outcome versus process orientation explained further on in this article) is poor and a bad experience occurs, sharpening the fear. Controlling these emotions, thoughts and feelings will ultimately assist athletes in overcoming these fears and therefore performing better more consistently.
The Vicious Cycle of Fear:
The mind-body connection is an important element to consider not only when dealing with fear but with all mental considerations. To help illustrate this point I need to refer to James Loehr’s “Ideal Performance State”. The premise of his paper on this ideal performance state is that certain emotional / psychological / mental states have a profound effect on our body (physical preparation), which in turn affects our performance potential. “Understanding how various feeling states impact performance levels and, specifically, the exact nature of those feelings which are positively related to high level performance could be of considerable value in the psychological training of athletes” (Loehr, 1983). Consider the following diagrams:
The Two Dimensional Concept of Energy and Feeling States:
At any given moment in time, we will find ourselves operating somewhere within these four quadrants. Loehr states that where we place ourselves within this concept will determine our body reaction and thus determine our performance potential (The chance we are giving ourselves of performing well). This is where we see how influential our thoughts and emotions can actually be and the consequences of the way we think and feel. In addition to this we can now begin understanding how our performance potential ultimately lies in our own hands and that we are the ones responsible for and accountable to our actions. Consider the next 3 diagrams:
Examples of emotions / feelings / psychological states found within each quadrant:
Physical reaction / response to the above psychological states:
Performance potential based on emotional state and physical response:
This model is an encouraging one. We now understand that the way we enter (psychologically / mentally) into training or competing will have an effect on the chance we are giving ourselves to perform well. The difficult element however is that the only person responsible for how you arrive to training or competition is you!
Now, let us get back to the topic of fear. Fear is a perception. We make it up ourselves. It is an emotion that we attach to a certain situation based purely on our perception of that situation or of a past experience of that situation. Fear is almost always negative which, as we have seen already, results in poor body preparation and execution which increases the chance of performing badly (The vicious cycle shown earlier). Fear differs drastically to being nervous (See conclusion for thoughts on this). We need to learn how to change this perception. We need to alter the mindset to overcome this fear.
Part two of this article will deal with a few of the starting points for overcoming fear.
Loehr, L., E. (1982). Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence. Virginia: Forum Publishing Company
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About Stuart Pattison
I graduated from Rhodes University in South Africa with a Distinction in my Master of Social Science Degree in Psychology. I am now the Owner and Managing Director of a company called Headstrong who are a group of Elite Performance Professionals.