How Athletes Thrive Off Fear — And You Can Too

How Athletes Thrive Off Fear — And You Can Too
Photo courtesy of The North Face

Big physical challenges can definitely be frightening. Just the thought of hiking Kilimanjaro, signing up for an ultramarathon or even trying a crazy-intense new HIIT class can put your nerves on high alert. But, it turns out those nerves can actually be a good thing.

Thinking about your fears can improve athletic performance significantly, according to a study from the University of Arizona. In the study, researchers observed basketball players and how well they played after receiving prompts that made them consider the fear of death. Those who were led through questions that made them think about their fears ahead of time performed a whopping 40 percent better than they had in a previous game without a fear-inducing prompt.

The resulting boost in performance likely stems from people’s subconscious desire to bump up their self-esteem, say researchers. The basketball players, they determined, associated doing well with a chance at immortality (like overcoming the fear of death). It’s the same idea behind pump-up phrases like “pain is temporary, pride is forever” — they get you fired up and help you channel your nerves into high performance.

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Turning Fear into Triumph

Of course, all different types of fears can pop up when you take on an athletic challenge. When you feel that nervousness, “There are the bodily changes — such as muscle tension, increased sweating, uneasy feeling in the stomach, shaking — and also changes in the thought process, such as dwelling on the importance of the activity or thinking about the possible outcomes,” says Vincent Granito, PhD, president of the sport psychology division of the American Psychological Association. “Most of these things are negative and would not necessarily help sport performance. However, there are some athletes that need to have that fear in order to compete at their best.”

That type of athlete, he says, really relies on feelings of uneasiness to help get mentally prepped to compete. In general, using fear as motivation tends to help people participating in sports with a big focus on speed, strength or power — like basketball, running races or powerlifting, says Granito.

To determine whether you’re motivated by fear, Granito recommends thinking back on how you’ve performed during past activities, whether that’s a half-marathon, a grueling hike or a CrossFit class. Try to remember your mental state at the time. Were you totally nervous toeing the start line and then busted out a PR? Or did nerves get to you and hold you back from doing your best?

You can learn to harness that nervous feeling and turn it into good next time you get antsy mid-competition. Granito recommends using cue words to get psyched — like “It’s go time,” “Let’s do this” or “This point is the most important point of the match.”

For more ways to use anxiety to your advantage, we turned to people who know fear best: Extreme athletes. Read on to learn how they work with fear to excel at their sports and how you can do the same. Even if you’re not riding waves or climbing peaks, you can adopt their strategies for nailing any challenge.

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5 Ways to Turn Your Distress Into Success

Using Fear for Success: Paige Alms, surfer
Photo courtesy of Russell Hoover

1. Take a deep breath.

“In scary situations I just try to be really present, not overreact, and just breathe,” says Paige Alms, a big wave surfer and the 2016 women’s big wave world champion. “Take big breaths and analyze the situation, then you’ll know how to react calmly.”

2. Repeat a mantra.

“When I’m moving, I say the word ‘yes’ in my head,” says Emily Harrington, a rock climber who’s free climbed El Capitan, summited Mount Everest, and became the U.S. national champion in sport climbing five times. “It’s so simple, one syllable, and a positive affirmation. It helps me focus in times of hard movement and keeps me from letting doubt creep in.”

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Use Fear for Success: Jacob Puzey, ultramarathoner
Photo courtesy of Altra Footwear

3. Focus on the small stuff.

“I try to consciously slow my heart rate down, and I stare at a tiny piece of rock in front of me, like a little crystal or something,” says Harrington. “I try to study it and think only about it for a few seconds. It helps me be present.”

Jacob Puzey — an elite endurance runner who’s tackled ultra trail marathons and set a record for covering 50 miles on a treadmill in one go — also pays attention to his surroundings to help channel any nerves into extra energy. “I just try to focus on everything around me, putting myself in a place of gratitude,” he says.

4. Make your muscles relax.

Because fear can cause your muscles to tighten up, Puzey takes a minute to check in with his body and nix any stiffness to ensure he runs his best. “I try to identify places where I feel tense and relax that area, whether it’s my shoulders or my hands or my jaw,” he says. “I focus on running naturally and relaxed. If one area tightens up, it usually tightens up everything else in the entire chain and that can lead to injuries.”

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Use Fear for Success: Emily Harrington, rock climber
Photo courtesy of The North Face

5. Remind yourself of your prep.

“I find confidence in physical preparation. With everything I do in the gym and during every surf session, I am learning something new and making myself a better athlete,” says Alms. While training, Alms also does breath holds to help prepare her lungs to handle long pauses underwater. She reminds herself of this practice when nerves start firing. “For sure knowing you can hold your breath for a long time helps! Trusting in my skill is what I rely on to push through and know that I can do it.”

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