One of the biggest limiters to achieving our true potential is fear.

  • Fear is uncomfortable.
  • Fear can be often coupled with panic.
  • Fear makes our decisions unpredictable and emotion based.

Let’s talk about fear and how it relates to athletic performance.

One of the most common fear inducing activities for example is swimming.  This is primarily caused by most athletes not having a background in swimming and only taking it up because it is part of the sport of triathlon.  Additionally, most humans are uncomfortable in the water as general rule because of the fear of “drowning.”  This fear of drowning is innately strong and similar common/strong fears generally tend to not exist when it comes to cycling or running because they are land based activities, things we are more accustomed to (as most people have ridden a bike and run in some form) since they were kids.

Fear may also manifest itself as:

  1. fear of not reaching our time goals
  2. fear that our friends will see our finish time from bad race
  3. fear of not getting the finish place we wanted in a race

A few ways we may eliminate the possibility of experiencing these fears are:

  1. we set time goals that we think we can hit
  2. we drop out of a race so that we don’t post a bad finish time
  3. we ensure our finish place goal is reachable if “all the planets align” on race day

Let’s consider a significant alternative solution to dealing with fear and in the process uncover the powerful ability to not avoid fear but rather recognize and embrace it so we can develop the ability to utilize it to our advantage, propelling us to the athletic potential we previously thought not possible.

One of the most significant abilities we have as athletes is the ability to recognize, train, and utilize the power of our mind; which ALWAYS limits our athletic performance.  By way of example, it has been scientifically proven[1] that when muscles “fatigue” it is not because the muscle fibers can no longer contract due to this fatigue but rather because our brain has basically sent signals to the muscles telling them to slow down or stop contracting in order to prevent them from getting injured.  Furthermore, it has been proven that people can train their minds to continue to push beyond this point of muscle fatigue/pain and continue to demand muscle contractions even after the mind has said “stop.”  So fatigue is not a result of the muscle lacking the ability to contract but rather our brain sending signals to stop these contractions as a protective measure.  Our body is controlled by our minds, period.

So while this is not a post about the cause of muscle fatigue, it does level set everyone reading this post for our discussion about pushing past previously perceived limitations.  Fear is certainly a limiter for most athletes.  Typically fear is coupled with panic and doubt.  However, it does not have to be.  By way of example, soldiers in battle experience fear on a regular basis but they have trained to anticipate, accept, and embrace fear, utilizing it to their advantage.  When trained, fear can enhance our perception and default our reactions to trained responses thus creating an opportunity for enhanced performance.  Additionally, the more we have opportunities to experience fear the more we get accustomed to the emotion and have the ability to train with it ultimately enhancing our ability to control the emotions that couple it.  For example through training, panic can be replaced with adrenaline fueled focus or heightened senses.

So why should athletes look for opportunities to experience fear and learn to harness its power?

The reason is that it will afford athletes the opportunity to undertake tasks they previously have avoided.  A swimmer will be able to perform at a previously unattained level during the swim leg of a triathlon despite severe water, weather, or race conditions.  A cyclist will be able to push past his previously thought fatigue limit when bridging a gap or sprinting up a long climb.  A runner will not lose focus when he feels his body begin to fall apart during an ultramarathon.

Panic is arguably more frequent and dangerous in the water than when experienced while running or cycling.  This is the best reason we should look for opportunities to induce our fear in the water.

Wait, did I just say you should LOOK for opportunities to be scared in the water?

Yes.  It is through consistent and frequent exposure to our fears that we can begin to learn how to adapt our performance around them and train our minds to react in certain ways while experiencing fear.  Remember, panic DOES NOT have to exist with fear and the fearful situation you are experiencing becomes more dangerous and potentially life threatening when panic exists.  This is the reason that undertaking training evolutions that evoke fear is so important.

With the mindset that we welcome fear so that we can observe and begin to control the subsequent emotions that follow, the greater our ability will become to operating effectively and efficiently inside the fear induced envelope; which is the key to breakthrough athletic performances.

I will leave you with a two empirical examples of fear induced training that I personally experienced which created an environment which, over time, allowed me to excel at the activity undertaken while still experiencing fear because I anticipated the emotion, understood how I would react, slowly changed over time my subsequent emotions, and ultimately became comfortable and highly effective at the activity while still experienced the same level of fear.

  1. While in the military we had combat stress training evolutions that were designed specifically to induce fear while giving us tasks to accomplish within a certain time requirement.  These evolutions induced fear through several mechanisms; (a) providing unclear and irregular direction/instructions, (b) constantly changing the objectives, (c) utilizing controlled high explosive devices and discharging high rate of fire weapons within close proximity, (d) continually reducing the time requirement that determines a successful evolution.  During our initial evolution, it was a complete clusterstuck and looked like someone stepped on an ant hill.  We were all going in different directions, didn’t know which way was up, and was clearly obvious to the instructors that our fear was coupled with panic and confusion.  Well over time as we repeated these evolutions we became better and better at them because we all knew that the fear induced mechanisms (a, b, c, and d above) were going to occur.  Additionally, we began to harness our fear into adrenaline focused motivation and decision making processes that ultimately allowed us to accomplish the tasks within the time requirements even though the time requirements became more and more difficult to hit.  It was obvious to all of us involved in this experience that even though fear is present it is possible and almost easier to achieve goals we previously thought were completely unrealistic.
  2. This second scenario is a scenario more people can probably relate to.  It has to do with the fear of water.  When I began in the sport of triathlon I had no swimming background and so I needed to learn this.  What I soon realized (as most athletes do) is that swimming in a pool is much different than swimming on a cloudy, rainy day with 3-4 foot swells in water deep enough that when you look down it’s pitch black.  This fear induced activity caused me to perform lower than expected.  However, I was extremely excited to swim in conditions like this despite the fear that accompanied the activity because the more and more opportunities I had to swim in these conditions, the more opportunities I had to begin to control the emotions that came with the fear.  Over time and many swims in these welcomed conditions I began to perform much better compared to my peers when swimming in these conditions.  People would ask me if I had a swimming background because I was becoming known to love swimming in these conditions.  In fact I told them that I was scared of swimming in these conditions and that is the reason I was excited to swim, because then I could continue to enhance my control and harness my emotions into greater and greater athletic performance.

So, while we have only touched the surface as to how powerful fear can be to increasing your athletic performance, I hope you begin to understand why it is so important to embrace and be excited about activities that induce fear in you.  It is through constant exposure to them that will allow you to hone your ability to achieve superior athletic performance above what you have previously thought possible.

[1] Noakes, T. D. (2000), Physiological models to understand exercise fatigue and the adaptations that predict or enhance athletic performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 10: 123–145. doi: 10.1034/j.1600-0838.2000.010003123.x