All those hours of training, the expensive new gadgets, and missed social engagements, have all come down to this moment in a chilly lake with 100 other people, all fiddling with goggles, checking GPS watches, and tugging at neoprene necklines. The claxon sounds, and the restless jostling for position gives way to a tempest of flailing limbs. You start to swim, frantically pawing at the murky water whilst dodging errant fists and the fingers that clutch at your feet. You turn to breathe and get a face full of water. Your wetsuit grows inexplicably tighter, your heart starts thumping, and your breathing becomes shallow. You can’t find your rhythm and stop to draw breath. Before you know it, you are clinging to a safety canoe, wondering what went wrong.
The Stress Process
Come triathlon season, this kind of experience, whilst highly unpleasant, is far from uncommon. Even seasoned triathletes can find themselves grinding to a panic-stricken halt, unable to pinpoint the cause of their anxiety. What they lack is not physical training, but mental preparation. To quote four-time Ironman World Champion, Chrissie Wellington, “all the physical strength in the world won’t help you if your mind is not prepared” (Triathlete’s World, 2010). Like any other element of a triathlon, the key to overcoming anxiety in the mass swim start is learning and practice, a process that begins with an understanding of what underlies that shallow breathing and racing heart.
Stress is an ongoing process of transacting with our environment, appraising stressors, and attempting to cope with any issues that arise (e.g., Hanton, Fletcher, & Coughlan, 2005). Thus, an individual’s response to a certain situation is not directly related to the situation itself, but to his or her interpretation of it (e.g., Lazarus, 1999). It is those who perceive an imbalance between the demands of the environment and their coping resources who experience an anxiety response (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). This response may vary between situations and even in the same situation at different times, hence even experienced competitors are not immune to the odd bout of competition anxiety.
Interestingly, research indicates that symptoms of anxiety, even uncomfortable ones such as those described above, are not necessarily detrimental to performance (Cumming, Olphin & Law, 2007). Indeed, the difference between elite and amateur competitors lies not in the intensity of their competition anxiety, but the extent to which they consider that anxiety debilitative or facilitative to performance (e.g., Hanton, Thomas, & Maynard, 2004; Jones, 1995). Amateur athletes tend to tackle anxiety using strategies aimed at lowering the intensity of their response, such as relaxation, whereas elite athletes are more likely to use psychological techniques to interpret their anxiety response as facilitative to performance (Hanton, Wadey, & Mellalieu, 2008). The latter approach has been associated with increased confidence (e.g., Jones & Swain, 1995), which can improve perceived controllability of anxiety symptoms and coping under pressure (Hanton, Mellalieu, & Hall, 2004), and avoid decreasing the athlete’s activation to levels too low for optimal performance (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996).
Therefore, the psychological strategies outlined here are aimed at helping an athlete reappraise their anxiety response, but may not necessarily decrease the anxiety response itself. Three techniques will be outlined, alongside relevant research and examples of how these may be applied with an athlete experiencing anxiety in open water swim scenarios.
This technique involves simulating the physical and mental conditions associated with competition, which are not usually present in the training environment (Hardy et al., 1996), such as a group swim start in deep water. This allows the athlete to familiarise themselves with the stress-inducing stimuli they encounter during an open water swim and develop practical strategies to cope with both the external conditions (e.g., crowding) and internal conditions (e.g., shallow breathing). Simulation training also provides the athlete with evidence of past successful performances, an important source of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977) which has been associated with improved performance (e.g., Moritz, Feltz, Fahrbach, & Mack, 2000).
This technique goes beyond mere visualisation, incorporating a combination of different sensory modalities to mimic real experience (Cumming & Ramsey, 2009). It can be used to replace a maladaptive response to certain stimuli with a new, adaptive response (Lang, 1977). For example, a triathlete who experiences fear when they feel their heart racing could imagine replacing this response with a feeling of excitement. The imagery script should be highly personalised and functionally equivalent to the target environment (Holmes and Collins, 2001), so that each time the athlete rehearses the script they provoke the appropriate physiological response (efferent leakage; Lang, 1977, 1979). In this way, imagery may be used to transfer the psychological benefits of simulation training into the competitive environment (Jones, 1993), and help athletes to overcome negative anxiety symptoms and reappraise them as controllable and facilitative to performance (e.g., Hanton et al., 2004).
A pre-performance routine typically comprises of a sequence of task-relevant, individualised, and systematic cognitive and behavioural strategies, carried out before performance (Boutcher, 1990; Hanton et al., 2008; Moran, 1996). Whilst the specific function of pre-performance routines remains somewhat unclear (Cotterill, 2010), it has been suggested that they can enable an athlete to put themselves “in an optimal emotional, high self-expectant, confident, and focused state” (Singer, 2002, p. 367). Research suggests a number of potential benefits to our anxious open water swimmer, including improved performance under pressure (Mesagno, Marchant, & Morris, 2008), and improved focus on task-relevant stimuli (e.g., Boutcher, 1992). Whilst a number of models exist for the development of pre-performance routines (e.g., Lidor & Mayan, 2005; Murphy, 1994; Singer, 1988), Holder (2003) emphasised that the most critical feature is individualisation. A routine modelled around the needs of an anxious triathlete might include specific elements of the imagery and simulation training described above, to help the individual maintain a facilitative directional interpretation of their anxiety symptoms, and build confidence in their ability to cope with any challenges (Hanton et al., 2008).
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About Phoebe Sanders
I am working towards an MSc in Sport Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, alongside providing psychological support to individual clients and the academy athletes at a premiership rugby union club. After graduating from the University of Oxford with an MA in Experimental Psychology, I spent several years working in HR. During this time I practiced as a certified business coach and received a diploma in HR management. I am particularly interested in supporting athletes through periods of change and transition. I have represented Great Britain as a dressage rider and triathlete, and rowed for Oxford’s Varsity crew.