Coaching, Performance psychology, Sports Psychology

Dealing with Fear: 3 Concepts to Master

In the last post we raised two questions about practice and performance. The essence of the inquiry is the sense and feel of these two activities. Both are a form of playing. You could argue that the outcomes may differ as we aim to improve in practice, and we aim to win at the end of performance.

But maybe there is more to it. Maybe an expectation or idea underneath the activity changes the way it feels. Maybe fear or lack thereof changes the feel in the moment and effects performance. With that idea, here are 3 important concepts to master when dealing with fear.

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Valence: Our mindset reacts to experience very quickly and on a deep internal level. Our sense of safety is always activated and for good reason. Therefore, we assign a valence—first unconsciously—to what we are experiencing as either positive or negative. On a very primal level and in the blink of an eye this sense evaluates whether to approach or avoid what is confronting us.

We rarely notice subtle positive experiences because of the alignment with our expectations of how the world should work. A feeling of being OK or content doesn’t garner much awareness. Not typically true for subtle negativity which activates our awareness to assess the situation. The problem with this reaction during performance is that it impacts sustained focus and attention. Past experiences or negative pieces of narrative can come into mind and now you are no longer in the present, no longer in flow.

The required skill is emotional mastery. This involves self-awareness and the ability to sense shifts in states, to make sense of the emotional message, and to regulate the energy of the emotion (more on this later). We can’t turn off our connection to the environment. We have emotions, otherwise we would be numb. Understanding valence allows us to quickly make sense of shifts in states without pushing beyond the stress we can tolerate.

Loss: Fear is an intimate friend of loss. Yet in competition, loss (just like a win) is an outcome at some time in the future. Performing is a process, linking together actions in the present. A competition is the process of competing and the outcome is determined by this process. While this may seem a play on words, it’s critical to learn to be engaged in the present.

When loss seeps into the mind, fear engages the fight, flight or freeze response by ramping up the sympathetic nervous system. This energy is not the state of calm alertness required for fluid execution. The skill is to allow thoughts of loss to come and go without engaging, judging, or fighting them. The mind is a master storyteller always trying to weave a coherent narrative. Learning to let go of losing, losses, and projections of future outcomes is critical to maintaining flow states within the sweet spot of performance.

Regulation: Part of emotional mastery is the ability to manage states. But understanding comes before managing—a process that cannot occur in the reverse order. Emotions, feelings and thoughts ebb and flow. You can’t stop thinking. You can’t stop feeling. And the source of this is experience—and you can’t stop experiencing. Experience lives at the intersection of our inner and outer world, the connection between out mindset and the environment. This reveals why we first have to understand the process before we can manage it.

One of the most important aspects of mental toughness is the ability to regulate the cognitive load between our situation and our inner resources. Emotions can overload our capacity and wreak havoc with attention and focus. Composure is paramount and the ability to regulate the flow of information and energy requires self-awareness and emotional mastery. Like a regulator, we downshift or upshift our intensity, accelerate or brake in order to meet the moment. We emote, make space, make meaning, and move on.

Staying within the Zone of Optimal Performance requires regulating the ebb and flow of experience, a process that fear distorts and upsets. Emotional mastery requires this regulation summed up by:

  • Emote: acknowledge and allow the arc of the feeling
  • Make space: do not become the feeling, rather keep it as object distant enough to observe (you will still feel the emotion)
  • Make meaning: what is the message and purpose of the emotion? What actions and decisions follow based on what you value?
  • Move on: return actively to the process in the moment

Like all psychological tools, they require practice. Just like performance skills, the muscle memory builds and becomes efficient over time–and part of the performance process.

 

If you would like more structure to take your mental approach to the next level, consider picking up a copy of my new sports psychology workbook: Above the Field of Play. Or to learn about other sports psychology services pricing (including an assessment of your present mental approach), visit my website at DrJohnPanepinto.com.

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photo credits: Photo by Felipe Giacometti) on Unsplash (unspash.com)