Learning from the Best to Overcome Doubt, Fear, and Panic
“I was in total tears before the race.”
If you’ve been around sport long enough, you’ve witnessed a pre-competition breakdown. Anxiety and nerves run high, panic overwhelms, and the tears start to flow. The athlete wants to be anywhere else, doing anything else—but they are trapped.
Some parents and coaches try to comfort, telling the athlete some version of “it will be okay.” Others take the opposite approach, imploring the athlete to “pull themselves together,” or “toughen up!”The classic line Tom Hanks delivered in A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball!” fits well here.
Whenever we see someone breaking down and crying, we assume they are weak. That they do not possess the intestinal fortitude to handle competing at this stage. That they’ll never make it, and their inability to control their emotions is a sign that they should choose another sport, activity, or profession.
That’s all BS. Feeling emotions is normal. Occasionally having a breakdown is normal.
The man quoted at the beginning of this article who experienced tears before his race was no other than Wayde Van Niekerk. He was speaking about his experience during the Olympic Final in which he won a gold medal and beat Michael Johnson’s venerated 400-meter world record with a time of 43.03.
Pre-race Van Niekerk was a mess. His mind was filled with doubts and concern over a hamstring that he’d felt twitch during the preliminary rounds.
That’s normal. It’s not a sign of weakness. We’re humans. Feeling nerves, experiencing doubts and emotions is what we are wired to do. They are signals, a way of communicating what’s going on in our internal state. But because they are just messengers, we can choose to listen or not. In fact, as I outlined in Do Hard Things, elite performers are more, not less, in tune with their emotions and feelings. From athletes to soldiers to high pressure stock traders, being able to listen to your emotions helps performance, according to research.
And that’s what Van Niekerk did, “But when I got into the blocks, I had to switch my mind back into the race…In the first 200m I was a bit fearful, but I decided to give it my all.”
Great performers are able to flip the switch to compete. They experience the same doubts and nerves that the rest of us do, but over the years they’ve learned how to navigate them. They aren’t always successful, but they’ve trained their mind to accept the experience and shift to something more productive. They refocus their mind on the task at hand.
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