Fear is a real killer. It is a killer of confidence. A killer of trust. A killer of motivation. A killer of good judgment and a killer of performance.
Yet fear is not the real enemy. It is only the product of the things that make you afraid.
For example, many of us have a deep fear of ever running out of money or other resources. I once knew a woman that kept a closet full of brand new clothes because she told me that she’d grown up poor and never had any nice things.
Later, after she divorced a man who wanted to spend her hard-earned money on a risky venture, she worked through a series of younger men that she effectively trained to be her sexual partners, but nothing more.
Her fears over ever being poor again essentially drove both behaviors. This is not to criticize her. Just about everyone is driven by some sort of fear. Secret or not, these fears compel them to defend against the situations that relate to the reasons why they are afraid.
Those of us that have worked for bosses driven by their fears know that the outcomes of their management style are often unpredictable or inconsistent. They may instruct us to do one thing and then turn around and contradict themselves. It’s all dependent on how the current progress or lack of it makes them feel.
By contrast a boss or coach that has built genuine self confidence and is not so subject to fear will, if faced with challenges, likely also want to know the reasons behind those problems and help you find ways to overcome then.
But the fearful boss just wants you to make them go away. And if that doesn’t happen, sooner or later they’ll make you go away.
These same principles of managing fear through reason and knowledge apply to athletes. The dangers of fears operating among coaches in sports such as swimming, running, cycling or triathlon center around compensatory fears. It takes a lot of insight for coaches to counsel athletes and not project their own fears or shortcomings on the athletes they coach.
The job of a coach is to help the athlete achieve a state of informed objectivity and provide both direction and perspective. Typically that means building up the confidence of an athlete through training, then teaching them to apply that training in a race scenario. But along the way, coaching can also mean identifying and overcoming the problems or fears an athlete brings to the table.
In fact that might just be 90% of the job. As my wife likes to say, “Everyone has their baggage.” This is true in the world of work and relationships. It is also true for people who swim, run and ride. Every past performance fuels our present state of mind. But it’s the future that always matters most. The next chance to try again.
Getting to that point of relaxed anticipation about the next performance is the goal. That’s why releasing our fears or setting them aside is so important.
Along with the tools of associative or dissociative psychology, which determine whether you focus on your body’s signs or try to ignore them by listening to music or other distraction, there is the reasoning that goes into why you’re out there trying to perform in the first place.
That’s the missing element in the psychology of so many athletes. Knowing the “why” of what you’re doing is a powerful way to take hold of the moment and set aside your fears. Because when you’re sure about the “why,” and that can mean any number of things, the power of fear to hold you back is greatly diminished. In fact, it can entirely disappear.
So I encourage you and perhaps your coach to consider an internal discussion about the “why” of what you do. It may be something quite simple… as it was when I trained and raced in my 20s and just wanted to find out how good I could be.
There was another “why” involved as well. I also had some things to prove to myself, unsolved elements of youth that led to anger. And I wanted to prove my ability to cancel my doubters while I was at the peak of my physical years so that I would not have to spend my whole life wondering or speculating how good I truly was. Or was not. And I do know that.
Which makes it a little easier to deal with the natural fears associated with aging. I don’t like getting slower as a result of adding years, yet I continue to train and race because I largely enjoy the sensations and excitement that come with those endeavors.
Which means that when I stand on the starting line the only fears I typically have are practical ones. How can I swim better in open water? What do I need to do to ride faster today? What pace do I need to hit after the first mile out of transition?
These are the kinds of fears that make us a little nervous and excited, but they typically don’t stop us from trying our hardest. So use the “why” to get past the fears based on personal doubts or inner conflicts that make you doubt yourself. And learn to trust when someone tells you that you can do it. Because you can.