How Does Fear Impact Performance?
Fear reduces performance when the level of fear is too high for too long.
A little bit (or a lot) of fear and adrenaline on the day can boost your performance massively and we don't want to remove those positive effects. What we need to deal with is chronic stress in the build-up to a competition and stop those fears from reducing performance.
Fear is the most pernicious when it affects training and preparation negatively in the weeks and months leading up to a competition.
I feel this fear can be reduced in everyone by adopting strategies for dealing with it.
A reduction in fear and worry in the lead up to competing will make training, sleep and life in general so much more tolerable.
Even if someone goes from crippled by anxiety to less anxiety the effect in that person is still immensely positive.
I want you to achieve a less stressful build up to every competition from now on.
As an athlete with lots to worry about it's important to look at the big picture and not get too caught up in all the specific effects of anxiety. The last thing we want is you overthinking about feeling anxiety once in a while because that is perfectly natural.
We need strategies for dealing with it to stop chronic anxiety and stress from being your modus operandi.
When I'm working with people I try to help them establish a gradual improvement in mindset with each passing competition until mindset mastery is achieved (if there even is a thing!)
I will be going into some specifics below so if you are very close to a competition I would skip over the sciencey part in the middle and go straight onto the various strategies I recommend for lowering stress as a big event approaches.
Individual responses to stress, fear, and anxiety
The individual responses to stress are many and varied. I began exploring all the different personality types and the nuanced ways that stress affects people and how they can deal with those problems but it became far too complex and beyond the scope of what I wanted to do with today's article.
Essentially, you will respond in your own individual way to stress and anxiety in the build up to a competition but you should try coping strategies used by people with similar personality types to you and gradually build an armoury of coping mechanisms to help you get into the best mind-space you can.
These can and will change over time so never be afraid to try a new method and always remember that change is only impossible when you are dead.
Genetic Components Of Stress
How stressed and worried you are in the weeks preceeding a competition has a large rooting in genetics.
Does that mean you can't improve things?
Even the worriest (definitely a word, fuck you spellcheck) of worriers can improve things for themselves!
There is even evidence suggesting that political leanings have a large basis in genetics so we can assume your natural tendencies towards stress and anxiety can be blamed on your parents.
If you do suffer from anxiety, extra worry and stress in the build-up to a comp it's time to start taking control again.
Where do feelings of fear and anxiety stem from?
"Anxiety is a reaction to stress that has both psychological and physical features. The feeling is thought to arise in the amygdala, a brain region that governs many intense emotional responses."
"As neurotransmitters carry the impulse to the sympathetic nervous system, heart and breathing rates increase, muscles tense, and blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain. In the short term, anxiety prepares us to confront a crisis by putting the body on alert. But its physical effects can be counterproductive, causing light-headedness, nausea, diarrhea, and frequent urination. And when it persists, anxiety can take a toll on our mental and physical health."
You can read more on this HERE. I've also added it to the suggested reading section at the end just in case you forget before finishing reading.
The above doesn't mean the pain is "just in your head." Your pain is as real as any injury just may be due to recent stressors instead of physical trauma.
I've recently thinking about a specific kind of anxiety that I like to call:
COMPETITION-INDUCED GENERALIZED ANXIETY
For many athletes, it is this kind of anxiety or fear that needs addressing the most. This is because stress levels tend to increase greatly as competition gets nearer or the importance of competition increases.
Any anxiety or stress already felt is often magnified by a looming competition which can be too much for some while others are just about able to muddle through but it's incredibly hard.
When anxiety and fear prevails it can destroys THE PROCESS of building a top performance. Fear and anxiety are expected on the day but when it spills over to all aspects of your life your recovery will be hindered more than necessary.
Life happens so unfortunately, we can't avoid stress. Don't think you have ruined your whole prep if you let stress get the better of you at some point, the key is knowing what to do when this happens.
We can minimise it and we can help you to deal with irrational or exaggerated fears as they crop up.
Anxiety And Fear Can Increase Pain And Niggles Experienced
"Anxiety also plays a role in somatic symptom disorder, which is characterized by physical symptoms such as pain, nausea, weakness, or dizziness that have no apparent physical cause."
Harvard Women's Health Watch
Pain and niggles also seem to increase as emotional stress get's higher. Pains and niggles increase stress and worry and make training harder. It can be a vicious cycle.
Here's where things get fun. When stress-levels are chronically high we see elevated levels of pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide (‘PACAP’).
Isn't that just easy to remember!?
PACAP is something called a neurotransmitter. Apparently, PACAPs pathway goes from spinal chord to the amygdala which you'll remember was the seat of anxiety and emotional distress.
Serotonin is involved, as is dopamine. Needless to say...it's complicated as fuck.
I haven't even begun to understand all the processes and functions of this very important protein. What is clear is that when stress levels are higher this pathway is more active. With that increased activity comes more anxiety and higher levels of pain which can be managed by reducing stress using the activities suggested later in the article.
High levels of stress and anxiety disrupt a whole host of cognitive functions (including sleep.)
This affects many hormones and it's way more complicated than I've made out and will involve many hormones, neurotransmitters and a whole host of other processes that are far beyond the scope of this article.
As the pressure of competition builds this can become a vicious spiral of decline into stress levels that can break an athlete and make life a living misery until the stress of competing is over with.
This can often actually result in many competitors dropping out of ever doing a competition or quickly dropping out of a sport that they love training for because the pressure of competition is too great.
For some people, they genuinely don't want to compete and that's fine but others could learn to love or at least tolerate the preparation for a competition in a far more sustainable way.
It will just take a willingness to do the mindset work to get there.
Again, if you don't want to work on your mindset and would rather not compete or you've tried it and it isn't for you that is completely fine.
You had the courage to make a decision and I respect that immensely.
Reducing stress will help your decision making in the build-up to and during a competition.
The problem with stress is that's it's easy to feel but it's very difficult to define and it's very difficult to pin down physiologically so don't worry if you don't understand the specifics of stress and anxiety (I don't) as long as we have strategies for coping.
There are are also so many millions of factors that dictate the magnitude of the stress.
Individual differences in response to stress and anxiety also are boundless.
I feel as if I'd have to write a book in order to fully explore the extremely complex world of stress management so instead, we'll now begin to discuss with broad strokes how I see stress affecting my clients and myself as competition approaches then we'll give you some coping strategies after that.
Effects Of Competition Stress
Sleep negatively affected
Over criticism of your lifts
Rewatching and obsessing over every lift
Negative self-talk increases
Higher resting heart rate
Increased niggles and pain
Crippling doubts and anxiety
Irrational fears and exaggerated rational fears
These effects cascade together and make an athlete feel like crap and close to competition athletes especially in strength sports will feel crap anyway!
Why Does This Happen?
Strength athletes are usually great at punishing themselves and shit at being kind to themselves.
Mindset isn't usually something a non-professional athlete would normally focus on in a methodical way. I think that should change if you struggle to cope when a competition looms.
A good mindset can be trained and built upon incrementally just like adding kilos to a barbell over time.
Practise being better at being kind to yourself by following some of the advice featured below.
How People Promote Fear And Anxiety Before A Comp
Dealing With Negative Self-Talk
"Like it or not, everything you say to yourself matters. The inner critic isn’t harmless. It inhibits you, limits you, and stops you from pursuing the life you truly want to live. It robs you of peace of mind and emotional well-being and, if left unchecked long enough, it can even lead to serious mental health problems like depression or anxiety."
When your inner critic consistently labels you in a negative way, it has a demoralizing effect and shapes your larger self-concept about who you are and what you can do.
You can read more HERE.
It doesn't matter if your negative self-talk is true because it's not going to put you in the best frame of mind for your competition so must be thrown out of the window.
It's self-destructive, harmful and learning to deal with these will help you cope better with the stress of competition.
Re-frame how you talk to yourself. If you miss a rep don't use it as confirmation of what an utter failure you are because it usually isn't true.
Step 1 is recognising when you are being TOO harsh on yourself.
If you miss a rep look at the reasons why you did then deal with it and move on. Dwelling on things like this isn't going to help anyone.
If you are feeling shame, guilt, and worthlessness that's the critic again and it's usually magnified as the pressure of competition builds.
Slow down, recognise the critic and tell him or her or IT to FUCK OFF.
Step 2 is about logging your inner critics bullshit
"Once you are aware of the critical voice, you will be in a position to stand up to it."
Conversation with your inner critic doesn't need to be the one-way street it has been up to this point which leads me to what is hopefully the last step in dealing with your negative self-talk.
Talk back to it. Make it seem stupid, redundant and a harbinger of lies. Call it out, shut it out. Laugh at it.
Your inner critic can be defeated to get your mindset in the best place it has ever been before a competition.
Addressing things you need to work on doesn't need to involve any emotion whatsoever. Keep notes on what you need to work on and address them with your coach when the time is right. You know it's time to stop when feedback becomes downright hostile towards yourself.
DEALING WITH IRRATIONAL FEARS
1. A persistent, abnormal, and irrational fear of a specific thing or situation that compels one to avoid it, despite the awareness and reassurance that it is not dangerous. 2. A strong fear, dislike, or aversion. [From -phobia.]
Many of the fears that you will experience in preparation for a competition will be utterly irrational or about things you've made up. An example irrational fear might be missing a specific number on your last squat before you've even planned what number you'll start with.
You might have fears of looking completely stupid with hundreds of people laughing at you or that you are letting your family and friends down with your performance.
These aren't healthy in the sense that they aren't going to get you to a place where your mindset will produce your best performance.
A useful strategy I have used is writing all the fears down and deciding which is a healthy fear and which is an unhealthy or irrational fear.
Just writing the fears out will help you out as you are getting those formless overthinking thoughts down on paper which can make them seem silly or trivial which they definitely don't appear to be when you wake up at 4.30am with all these fears swimming around your brain.
Then you can begin to talk out the fears either with yourself or with someone supportive.
Solutions to problems should be kept as simple as possible. Be kind to yourself and making big sweeping changes is usually discouraged because if you are entering a competition you already know how to lift.
If you have things you want to change then change it after the competition. Trying to make big changes before a competition is a recipe for fear, stress and a lack of subconscious lifting so essential for the best performance on the day.
At the end of the day it's all about awareness. If you are aware of your irrational fears it should be easier to start winning the war against them.
What about the real fears?
Fears about getting hurt
Losing family members/close ones
These are all real fears. There are many others but I'm not that clever.
Pain and Injury
Pain and injury can happen at any time. My advice is generally to not compete if you are already injured.
Unless you may never get to do that competition again I don't think it's worth the risk.
If it's a competition that happens every year or every few months wait until the next one when the injury is healed if possible.
Listen to your body, if it's telling you to stop make sure you stop.
Spending Time Away From Family
People often feel guilty about spending hour upon hour training when they could be spending time with their family.
I get this fear and I've experienced it myself. I'm lucky enough to live with a very supportive family who I can talk to.
I hope you have the same thing.
What we do is have more time together during deload weeks and post-competition. When competition season is upon us stress is higher and time together is lower so we just enjoy the time we do have to chill out and have fun.
I've found that if you agree on competition dates together so everyone knows what's going on and everyone is on board that this process becomes a lot easier. I hope you have people around you that can offer you the same support and urge you to find that if you don't.
Ridicule is something that CAN happen but as long as you go and give your best and have someone in your corner to coach you and talk about any worries you won't be ridiculed st a competition.
Everyone at a competition or at least the overwhelming majority just want to see everyone do really well.
Often competitions involve funny attire like a singlet that looks funny when you wear it in the gym but on competition day every single competitor is in the same uniform.
You are essentially brothers or sisters in arms. Everyone had to do their first competition so everyone knows how it feels. Just make sure you prepare well and do your best to enjoy the day of the competition if you can.
Address the real fears is a thought-out way. You might even consider counselling if the idea of dealing with your fears is overwhelming. I'm certainly not a mental health professional so I certainly recommend Again write these down as you experience them so you can come up with strategies to stop them cropping up again the next time you compete. Each competition we do we should get slightly better at dealing with them until we are seasoned professionals.
I'm still waiting to get there but things do get better over time if you work diligently.
Trust your training plan
In at least the month leading up to your competition just trust your programme unless it is making you injured.
If you want to make lots of changes make lots of notes and refer back to them after the comp so you can come up with a slightly tweaked programme the next time you are prepping.
If you chop and change things you are asking for things to go wrong. You can always just choose a different strategy the next time around.
Other Useful Strategies
Drop a few things that can wait until after the comp like extra research, taking on time-consuming projects. Listen to your favourite music, get out in the fresh air and stop being so harsh on yourself.
You are brave enough to get in front of people and lift.
Competing fairly often is also recommended particularly if you are a beginner so you can build up your strategies quicker and perfect your approach. A problem I had was that I was only doing 1-2 competitions a year and this meant I was having to relearn all my strategies each time. It also added pressure to make every competition perfect which take it from me didn't happen.
Have a strategy for each competition so you know what's expected of you
Change as little as possible and when you are beating yourself up write, stop it and be a bit nicer to yourself.
Now go and make it fun, be brave, be committed and make your next competition the best mindset performance you've ever given!
Remember, I'm not a qualified therapist of anything. I'm a glorified PE teacher so if stress and anxiety dominate your life get help from a professional if these strategies don't work.
Competitions are stressful and need to be in order for you to have enough mental drive to produce your best performance but sometimes that stress is present many weeks out and that is a problem that affects performance.
You can give yourself strategies to deal with that stress and get better at coping over time.
Thank you so much for reading and for still being here. You are awesome.
By Chris Kershaw
Key Terms And Further Reading
Pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide also known as PACAP is a protein that in humans is encoded by the ADCYAP1 gene. PACAP is similar to vasoactive intestinal peptide. One of its effects is to stimulate enterochromaffin-like cells. It binds to vasoactive intestinal peptide receptor and to the PACAP receptor.
Neural inhibition- is an active process that reduces or suppresses the excitatory activity of synapses, neurons or circuits.
Somatic Symptom Disorder- A somatic symptom disorder, formerly known as a somatoform disorder, is any mental disorder which manifests as physical symptoms that suggest illness or injury, but which cannot be explained fully by a general medical condition or by the direct effect of a substance, and are not attributable to another mental disorder (e.g., panic disorder).
You can listen to the episode HERE
Generalized Anxiety Disorder-
a disorder characterized by excessive or unrealistic anxiety about two or more aspects of life (work, social relationships, financial matters, etc.), often accompanied by symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath, or dizziness.
"extreme worrying almost every day for six months or more may signal generalized anxiety disorder"