There is a great concept in sports psychology that I go back to time and time again. It is the idea of perceiving your difficult goals or tasks as either a threat or a challenge.
We all get nervous before we have to do something really hard or something that means a lot to us. Completing a hard training session on FulGaz, a long-distance challenge or taking on new responsibilities or roles in our careers.
This ‘nervousness’ is recognised as being on a spectrum, from under arousal, optimal arousal, and over-arousal. We are all familiar with over-arousal, which describes the state of pre-performance anxiety that can cause us to lose significant sleep, feel ‘empty’ or nauseous, overthink, and often and doubtful and fearful about what awaits us.
This state is often induced when we perceive our task as a ‘threat’ therefore stimulating a threat response in our bodies and minds. In reality, these tasks are not actually a threat to our lives, so our reactions are not entirely justified the way they would be if it was a real threat. It is our perception of the hard work, pressure, and inevitable discomfort we will feel when we undertake the race/training session/new role that triggers this state.
Luckily, in sport, we can learn to shift from over-arousal to optimal arousal by working on changing our perception of the task. If we see the task as a ‘challenge’ to be excited about and look forward to, we can tackle it head-on and accept that we will feel a bit of nervousness and restlessness, but it can be attributed to the excitement factor of taking on a new experience.
For example, I took part in a really hard, possibly the hardest mountain bike race I have ever done on the weekend, the MB Race around Mont Blanc in France. It was over 3500 meters of climbing in 70km against professional mountain bikers, challenging conditions I had never ridden before.
I knew it would be a hard day out. I worked on seeing it as a challenge and went so far as to name specific things that excited me about it in order to cement this belief and also accept the nervousness as a sign that I cared about this race and I wanted to do well.
- I get to experience the French Alps in a unique way on my bike.
- I will be able to hone my skills over 70km and come out the other side with improvements.
- I know will confront doubts and dark moments when my legs are screaming but since I am prepared for this I will be able to deal with it when it gets to that point.
- I will give everything I have on this day, and that is all I can do on this day
- I will aim to complete the race in around 5 hours.
- It’s just a race and this is what I like to do, I know I will feel satisfied afterwards
What IF I actually do my best?
If I had told myself the ‘this is a threat’ story, perhaps my thoughts would be more like:
- It’s going to be so so hard and I am going to be really tired all day.
- I have to get up so early that I will be too underslept to perform my best.
- I might crash, crashing hurts, maybe I won’t even finish.
- The other girls are so much more experienced and stronger than me I might as well not bother.
- I am going to be a failure if I don’t complete the race in 5 hours, it means I am not fit enough.
- In the past at mountain bike races bad things have sometimes happened to me so I will probably get a mechanical/get lost/run out of water/crash like I have before.
- What IF I totally fail and have a horrible time?
On the start line I was thinking to myself ‘I GET to do the MTB Race!’ And as I eyed off my competition, I thought ‘wow they look strong and serious.
I am grateful I get to test myself against the best in this discipline.’ Even if initially you don’t totally believe what you are telling yourself, if you repeat enough times it starts to become true.
During the first part of the race, I was 4th for a while and was really struggling on the super muddy, steep descents, and I began to have doubtful thoughts creep into my head. I started to say to myself ‘I knew I was sh*t at descending, I don’t practice enough. If I crash, my road team will be angry, I guess I am always too scared’, 4th place is the first real loser’.
But I noticed my unhelpful thinking and chose to shift it to ‘I have another 50km to try and improve my descending in the wet, I have a really good opportunity here to improve that I might never have been otherwise.’ And, ‘climbing is my strength, so I am going to really push on the climbs and deal with the discomfort, it’s just a sensation!’
At the finish, I ended up on the podium in 3rd, after passing a girl on the long climb. I then needed to not ‘lose time’ on the final 10km descent and I was giving myself positive feedback the whole way down. I finished in just over 5 hours. It was close to my goal but not quite on point, so I could easily reflect and see where I could have made up some time for the future.
This is just one example of how you can ask yourself ‘is this a threat or a challenge?’ When you are feeling nervous about your athletic pursuits, and what specific questions I asked myself. I used this technique in road racing in my early career too, especially when learning to position in the bunch. I would think THREAT: There are so many people, I can’t move, I will crash, I am so scared to CHALLENGE: Try and move into any gap you see, this is the best practice under pressure, try and follow the wheel of experienced riders.
Next time you are faced with a challenge, ask yourself these questions and rearrange your thoughts. I promise it will change your experience!