By Gretchen M. Sanders, licensed master social worker and therapist at Sol Community Counseling in Austin.
Lacing up my shoes for a run, it rises in my throat. Diving into the water at swim practice, it whispers in my ear. Sitting down to write this article, it seizes me once more. "Maybe you can't do it," it nags, "maybe you aren't good enough." "Be quiet," I respond. We have this same conversation every time. I know this monster well. Chances are, so do you. I call it Fear.
Whether a beginner, intermediate or elite athlete, at some point in your training, you have likely experienced the powerful sensation of sheer fear-a racing heart, the rush of adrenalin, a flood of self-doubt. Fear, with its ability to both paralyze and motivate, can undoubtedly influence performance. Perhaps fear grips you just before a race, leading you to reconsider the commitment you made to compete. Perhaps fear keeps you from attempting physical challenges altogether, or, conversely, it provokes you to aim for the unreachable. Either way, you find yourself controlled by the puzzling force of fear. Fear is inevitable; it strikes when it chooses. How would your running improve if you could better manage your fear? Would you attain more goals? Would you dare to set them higher?
Fear is a natural and necessary feeling. It is an emotional reaction to a perceived threat, a survival mechanism occurring in response to a stimulus. We need fear; it functions to protect us from harm and works as a catalyst for change. Fear becomes problematic, however, when it gets in our way, when it prevents us from reaching our potential, when it traps us and stops us from moving forward. If fear works for and against us, then the goal should be not to avoid feeling it but to learn how to cope with it. To begin a new relationship with fear, to learn how to move through it becomes the long distance challenge.
I can clearly recall a morning when, upon hearing my coach assign a frightfully long run, I was stuck with a fear so great I considered going home before taking a single step. Only pride and fear of what my training buddy would think kept me in the game. Throughout warm-ups, a nasty voice told me I wouldn't make it to the end. An agitating mental battle ensued, and I fought impulses to hide. Then, a funny thing happened: frustrated and emotionally exhausted, I surrendered. I gave up resisting the fear, allowed myself to feel it fully, ran forward despite it and enjoyed a run that left me feeling invincible. I marveled when the finish line snuck up on me. I did it. I made it through a run I didn't know I could do. I never outran the fear-I carried it every mile-I just chose to feel it, not fight it. I realized that had I succumbed to my initial urge to flee, I would have missed an opportunity to surpass my own expectations. I wondered how many times in life I've given up too early because I let fear intimidate me. I learned something that day. I learned to run the full gantlet of fear. I learned the value of perseverance, and I'm not talking about the grueling mileage. I'm talking about moving through the complete cycle of fear-the paralysis, the negative thoughts, the bargaining, the confrontation, the enlightenment, the triumph. I finished the run not because I figured out how to escape the fear but rather how to tolerate it. I discovered a way to carry fear lightly-with respect and unburdened.
Learning to tolerate and manage fear without having to make it go away is as critical on race day as on any other training day. It might mean the difference between tackling a long run, signing up for a 10K, crossing the finish line-or not. How you handle fear will depend largely on your coping skills. What coping tools do you have already? Let's explore how coping strategies like legitimizing feelings, grounding, employing distraction, practicing mindfulness, having compassion for self and using positive, non-judgmental self-talk can influence your running and help you push through fear.
Fear is allowed. Many athletes say they panic at the first tingling of fear. These runners, swimmers and bikers don't trust that they can handle fear. They have forgotten that feeling afraid is perfectly normal, that it's part of the process and has something to offer. Still, the fear of fear is terrorizing. The good news is that living the experience of successfully surviving an episode of fear will inspire faith in your ability to do it again next time. But first, you must allow yourself to go there, and to go there, you must legitimize fear. Give yourself permission to feel afraid. Trust that you can handle it, understanding that you can feel the fear and not react to it. This skill requires practice, but eventually you will develop the ability to sit with fear despite the discomfort and without panicking. Instead, you can learn to self-sooth in the midst of fear.
Self-soothing techniques abound. For some, grounding exercises like meditation and deep breathing work wonders. Grounding is a method of measuring thought (the basis of the fear) against reality. Most fears derive from stories we tell ourselves about what will happen in the future. But since we cannot exactly predict the future, it isn't useful to go there. Think about how many times you have predicted something would happen and it didn't. Grounding helps us stay in the present moment, from where we can assess the veracity of our stories. If fear is an emotion based on the future, then focusing on the present moment is a pathway out. Grounding our stories illuminates the space between what could happen in the future and the possibilities for now.
Distraction is a valuable tool for substituting fear for new stimuli. Some athletes benefit from distractions like stretching, walking, talking, or listening to music, which bring focus to the body rather than the mind. Others use prayer, which calls attention to the spirit. It's a matter of finding the distraction that helps you cope best.
Now, mindfulness. Mindfulness encourages awareness and is another useful coping tool. Mindfulness is a state of curious, compassionate and accepting study of the present moment - including the thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses and wants inside our own bodies. What are you thinking about before a run? Do you tend to whirl through a web of self-defeating what-ifs. What if it's too hard? What if I can't make it? What if everyone else is better? What if I get tired, sore or scared? Not useful. These thoughts will trap you. Once set in motion, negative thoughts can easily spiral out of control and scare you right out of the race. Pay attention to your thoughts, and be mindful of your self-talk.
Positive, compassionate self-talk will go a long way in reconstructing your relationship with fear. When you feel the fear, can you find compassion for your fearful self? Can you empathize with the fearful parts of you? Can you be curious about the fear? What does it want to teach you? What can you say to help navigate yourself through the fear? Using a combination of mindfulness, compassion and non-judgmental self-talk, your internal dialogue may sound something like this: "There's that dreadful feeling again. What is it? Oh, fear. I don't like this feeling. I'm scared, and I want to quit. Wait. I can want to quit and choose not to. It's okay for me to be uncomfortable. I don't always have to like the way I feel. I wonder why I'm afraid. Man, it's hard to feel this way. Okay, what can I do for myself to make this tolerable? Right, I know. I can slow down. I can sit and breathe and wait. That helps." Remember this: fear is just a feeling and no feeling can rage in intensity for very long-it's just not possible. Feelings pass if permitted.
Moving past our fear does not mean that it is never valuable. It keeps us safe at times and helps us prepare for potential eventualities. Without fear, we might not plan for enough water (especially when we aren't thirsty) or buy the right gear. A fearless man might run a marathon without proper training. It's acceptance and not the absence of fear we seek. So welcome fear, carry it lightly on your run, but don't let it take away your power or keep you from reaching the finish line.
Gretchen, a triathlete, is a licensed master social worker and therapist at Sol Community Counseling in Austin. Gretchen works with athletes of all ability levels on sports performance and interpersonal challenges. Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the website.