Fear is the feeling of threat from an imminent danger, regardless of whether or not this danger is real or imagined – the brain can’t make a distinction between an actual or a perceived risk.
This feeling of threat activates the amygdala to fire, which then triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, inducing somatic, cognitive, and behavioural changes such as…
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart-rate
- Excessive sweating
- Impaired decision-making
- Reduced peripheral vision
- Diminished kinaesthetic ability
Fear in sport
The word fear is often used in sport but, in this context, it can have two meanings. The first translation describes an athlete having a ‘fear of failure’, which is more accurately referred to as performance anxiety. The second refers to a situation where an athlete is genuinely fearful of being physically hurt, and this is the translation addressed in this article. Examples of this meaning of fear include a batsman facing a quick bowler, a ski jumper attempting an elevated jump height for the first time, a boxer facing a bigger and seemingly more powerful opponent, and so on.
Myths about fear
There are many myths about fear, including…
Myth 1: Fear is a sign of weakness
When you step out of your comfort zone, take a risk, or face a challenge, you will experience fear. This is not weakness – it’s the natural human response to the unknown.
Myth 2: Fear impairs performance
Fear is not your enemy – it is a powerful source of energy that can be harnessed and used for your benefit.
Myth 3: Fear holds you back
It is not fear that holds you back – it’s your attitude towards it.
Myth 4: Confidence is the absence of fear
In a challenging or dangerous situation, even the most confident people experience fear.
There are two basic methods for controlling and channeling our fear for positive effect, and they are desensitisation and mental skill development.
Through repeated exposure (desensitisation), the brain learns to suppress fear by stopping the amygdala to fire. Therefore, by exposing athletes to a stressful and challenging training session, they will learn how to respond more appropriately next time they are faced with a similar experience in practice or competition.
It’s important that desensitisation training is done incrementally with small, regular ‘stepping stones’ that take the athlete slightly outside their comfort zone. By repeating this method, the skill level of the athlete will increase to meet the heightened demand of the stimulus, and over time his or her comfort zone will expand. The more this comfort zone grows, the less the athlete will be faced with situations in which he or she experiences the feeling of fear.
However, when athletes are taken too far outside their comfort zone, they can quickly become overwhelmed, rendering the practice useless at best, or, in a worst case scenario, making them even more fearful.
2 Mental skill development
To further help an athlete overcome fear, there are four main areas of mental skill that can be developed – performance routines; visualisation; self talk; and emotional control.
Performance routines: Focusing on a performance routine engages the prefrontal cortex (powered by logic), whilst also suppressing the amygdala (powered by emotion), and this brings structure to a potentially chaotic situation. Routines should be consistent, task specific, and individual to the athlete.
Visualisation: Also known as mental rehearsal, visualisation is continually running through an activity in your mind so that when you try it for real, it comes more naturally. When athletes practice an event in their mind first, the reality will be less stressful because they will have already faced their fears. When using visualisation, athletes should aim to focus on things within their control, and imagine themselves successfully executing their skills.
Self-talk: The average person speaks to themselves at a rate of 300 to 1,000 words per minute. If these words are positive (“I can do it”) instead of negative (“I can’t do it”), they can help override the fear signal coming from the amygdala. The most effective positive self-talk uses short and simple words and phrases, and is wired to the intention of the athlete. In other words, it should focus on what the athlete wants to happen, as opposed to what the athlete doesn’t want to happen – don’t think “don’t”!
Emotional Control: A central component of emotional control is staying in the now, rather than worrying about what’s already happened, or what might happen in the future. Deliberate ‘belly’ breathing also helps to maintain or regain emotional control. Slow, controlled inhalations, which cause the abdomen to rise, followed by long, full exhalations, can help athletes combat some of the effects of fear.
The fear emotion produces significant amounts of energy, which can either overwhelm or power you. Through desensitisation training, and mental skill development, it is possible to harness this energy and reap the positive benefits…so stop allowing fear to get in the way of your progress, and get on with your training!
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