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Fear: Overcoming Psychological Obstacles to Performance
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
Success in mountaineering, as in most sports, is sometimes as much psychological as physical. Did you start climbing because you wanted to conquer a fear of heights? Do you climb or compete for the physical challenge, or to simply enjoy places in the mountains or outdoors among competitors that most people cannot access or experience? Are you someone who climbs because it IS scary and you like the thrill of taking risks? Do you participate in other sports in which you have to psyche yourself up for competition?
You probably have run into moments when you were completely scared out of your mind or so nervous you thought you might get ill and wondering what in the world you were going to do to safely get out of a situation; think back on how you dealt with your fears. Some of the following tips on handling fear come from Priscilla Moore, climb leader for the Seattle Mountaineers, as well as our own personal climbing, competing, and teaching experiences. You can apply some of these same techniques to just about any physical or sporting activities that cause you anxiety.
FEAR IS ENERGY; DRAW ON IT TO IMPROVE YOUR PERFORMANCE
You are not stuck with your fear as you presently know it. As you gain experience, it will take more and more to scare you. Instinctive behavior can be modified by experience. Think of “fear” as a healthy dose of “respect for the current situation.” Below are five tips that can help you deal with the current situation so that you fear teaches you, enables you, or empowers you to improve performance?
- Know the difference between your fears and reality. When you are climbing a rock face on belay from above, when you have a good anchor, when you have the proper training and you trust your teammates, exposure becomes a great view. You may see the void soaring all around you, but you know you aren’t going to get hurt. The exposure you experience is a passive thing that poses a threat only if your thoughts begin a negative spiral downward. You do have control of your thinking. A lot of those thoughts may be in the “what if” category. What if what if doesn’t happen?
- Know that it is natural to be afraid, especially in high, airy places. It’s also natural to be nervous in front of a lot of people, as in a race or public speaking situation. Do not trust the person who claims never to be afraid. Fear is our protector and it is built into our brains to help us survive. It is possible to accept your fear and use it to make yourself more careful, cautious, prepared, and alert. For instance, when you get that feeling on a climb, check your tie-in, make sure you have had enough food or water recently, or that you have on enough clothing; check the sky for weather, and your surroundings for safety, and then move on, staying more alert and focused on each move, as best that you can. If you get scared before a competition, use that fear and adrenaline boost to further motivate you. Try to duplicate the “fear situation” as closely as possible before you get into competition so that you will be as prepared as possible.
- Be very clear with yourself about what exactly scares you. Know the difference between actual danger and subjective fear. “Fear of heights” is an example of this. It is not “heights” that hurt you, nor is it falling -- it’s LANDING VERY HARD that does. It may not be completing a 90-minute triathlon that scares you, but rather the specific fear that your ankle won’t tolerate the running at the end, or your bike’s brake pads are not in good enough condition to use in a race with a steep hill mid-way through the bike part. Keep your perspective realistic and focused on the specific environment, taking things one step at a time, and give them your full attention. Many of the steps you take on a mountain or in a race would not give you a second thought at ground or non-competition level. Keep your perception clear and uncontaminated by “what if’s.”
- Build a phrase or affirmation to use when you start to feel fear. This acknowledges the onset of your fear, and your action to manage it. This might be as simple as “(name), BREATHE, You can do this” or “One step at a time.”
- There is more than one word for “fear.” One of them is “excitement.” Another is “challenge.” Some people prefer “exhilaration.” If you can get rid of the “f” word and find alternatives, psychologically that may be half the battle. Be aware that what others may report as “scary” may not seem so to you. Hold to your own judgment and don’t let dramatic reports throw you off until you have been able to see for yourself what your natural reaction will be.
YOUR GOAL IS NOT TO BE WITHOUT FEAR, BUT TO MANAGE IT
You do not want your anxiety to be any larger that is appropriate for the circumstances. Below are five simple things you can do to try to keep fear at bay.
- Breathe steadily and rhythmically; do NOT hold your breath. Taking yoga as part of your training can help you be aware of where you carry excess tension, such as in your shoulders and neck, and how to release it in the middle of your event, climb, or talk.
- Stay well rested, hydrated, fed and warm. Get plenty of sleep the night before.
- Prepare properly for your climb, talk, or race. Study the map, know the route and bring the right gear. Visualize the trip or race in your mind’s eye as you read the route description, and compare it to the map. Talk with others who have done the climb recently to get updates on current conditions. Know your audience, if you are going to be doing public speaking. Practice the transitions between events if you will be doing your first triathlon.
- Do what fear urges you to do: take care of yourself and stay safe.
- Talk about the fear with your climbing partners. They may be able to assuage some of the fear. If it turns out that everyone in your party is scared, there may be a perfectly valid reason to turn around or simply to try another route. If you will be up in front of a lot of people, practice your speech in front of others who can give you positive feedback. If you have been preparing for a race with the help of a coach, get input on how you’re progressing with your training and run a mock-race a few weeks ahead of time to iron out whatever wrinkles crop up ahead of time.