It’s CrossFit Open time again! On Sunday morning a sizeable group of athletes of all ages and abilities gathered to confront the first Open WOD of the year, 15.1. The sunny morning seemed right in tune with our bright encouragements of each other. Over the steam of fresh coffee and foam rolling, we spurred each other on with WOD tips and reminders of our goals, our strengths and how far we’ve all come. And with this or any competition, there is talk of nerves. As go-time approaches, athletes are getting into their zones – dealing with these nerves in their own ways. Some become steely-eyed and stoic. Others drill movements. Some dance and giggle.
You train and prepare, but on the day how can you manage these nerves? And do you need to? What are nerves? And do they deserve the bad reputation they have?
There is a general, lay-person’s consensus that nerves are bad for performance. And evidence in the field of performance psychology would tend agree that too much anxiety – the more medical term for pre-WOD jitters – can impair performance. It can increase muscle tension, reduce ability to focus and raise arousal levels beyond what could be helpful. Consistency under pressure is a hallmark of world class athletic performances. But does consistency mean an absence of anxiety? Would having zero nerves be useful?
Annoyingly, I might answer, ‘Yes and no’. Yes, in that anxiety left unmanaged an run riot and leave its victims unable to think straight, leaving them like a deer in headlights. This could make the more complicated movements in CrossFit crack under the pressure. Yet, performance without the arousal we get through pressure might not lead to the best results, either. While anxiety is typically thought of as something that interrupts our ability to focus, the opposite can also be true. Anxiety is the body’s response to threat, although this fairly unsophisticated alarm system is unable to distinguish between the threat posed by a beast-some WOD and the threat of an actual beast. The primitive parts of the brain involved in anxiety react to threats by releasing neurotransmitters and hormones that raise heart rate, respiratory rate and inspire a whole host of other bodily reactions designed by Mother Nature to get you ready for a fight or a quick escape. The pre-WOD pee-pee dash is an example of a by-product of anxiety as the body rids itself of unnecessary weight that might slow you down. And while extreme anxiety reduces focus, a little can keep you hyper-focused on the task at hand. After all, that would have been useful for survival.
The issue with anxiety for performance is that threats are an issue of perception and personal interpretations. Unfortunately, our brain’s system for dealing with threat is fairly ‘low tech’ and unable to distinguish between threats where the flight/fight response is needed and those where it is a hindrance. So our responses to threats to self esteem can be met with the same response as the threat of an approaching shark. And threats that are experienced as too big might bring with them the often forgotten third option to fight or flight – freeze! Faced with a threat as big as certain death, freezing can be very adaptive as a way to dissociate or mediate the pain and terror about to come.
Problems for performance arise when potential failures, losing or looking bad are perceived as these kinds of big threats. A little humility and respect for the challenge and other competitors usually provides a useful amount of arousal for performance. And also the kind that can be reasonably addressed by solid training, preparation and a little encouragement. However, a great number of people equate achievement with self worth, the love or esteem from others and being accepted. It’s through this unhelpful perspective that the threat of failing or losing is interpreted and the corresponding threat response – the anxiety – can be more tricky to get around. Another tricky issue can arise if there is a belief that feelings of anxiety are bad or unmanageable. In these cases, there is anxiety about anxiety – also not useful in performance situations where some anxiety is natural and expected.
What can you do if this is you? We learn about what constitutes a threat through experience. So if you’ve been someone who equates losing with huge threat, you would have learned that somewhere. Just as you’ve learned to fear failing, you can re-train your thinking. Experience is one of the best ways to re-learn, so putting yourself in anxiety provoking situations, situations where you might fail and even willingly going through failure can help you to challenge your assumptions. To do this you will need to be an active observer of your thinking and your reactions and aim to challenge ideas about failing being terrible, a reflection of your worth or something shameful. Get around positive people, and avoid those that are less than constructive in their criticisms.
Good news is that as bad as anxiety feels, it is surmountable. Keep strong, everyone!