It is not what you think you are that holds you back, it is what you think you’re not ~ Denis Waitley (American motivational speaker, writer and consultant)
Recently Jill Mills (my beloved coach), identified an interesting yet debilitating habit that I have as an athlete however also, more generally, I know I have this habit with any life situation that I perceive as stressful or high pressure. Approximately 6-8 weeks out of contest I begin questioning myself not only as an athlete but as a person; I question my abilities, my values, my worth, my training, my strength – everything.
Jill pointed out that I literally flip into “flight mode” a short time out of EVERY contest. Thoughts about; not doing enough work, not being strong enough and not being worthy, torment me and almost like clockwork. I enter a really dark phase where I start questioning my entire existence and purpose. Yes! It is totally extreme however, it came as an absolute surprise to me that Jill Mills, one of the strongest women on the plant, also struggles enormously with training her mind for contest. Jill states that; I had nearly debilitating issues with anxiety early on at competitions. I remember competing in Pennsylvania in a strongwoman competition in 2000. I have a vivid memory of the energy draining from my body and the feeling of my legs barely supporting me. I felt my body stiffening up, I had to urinate every 10 minutes, my stomach ached, and my head hurt from hyperventilating.
Jills reasons for nerves were similar to mine: excessive expectations on herself, fear of failure (my jaw drops!), fear of not being the best, fear that if she did fail it would validate those negative voices from her childhood. By simply drawing my attention to this, Jill, has allowed me to take the first steps to address this unhelpful thinking~awareness. My quest was then to explore what this is all about; why do accomplished, intelligent people do this and how can we manage these situations to work in our favour? Because as Jill states, if we can wrap our brains around it, we can probably control it.
Thoughts thoughts thoughts
Every single day we have thousands of thoughts that enter our mind~sometimes these thoughts are rational and factual other times they are totally irrational and have no evidence to support their truth.
Imagine picking up a lemon, running your fingers over the bright yellow, slightly rough skin of the lemon, lifting the fruit to your nose and deeply inhaling the aroma, placing the lemon on the bench top and slicing it in half, lift it to your mouth and lick the fruit. As a result of this simple story you have a thought, you may have an image in your mind and you may also have sensations such as smelling the scent or tasting the juice. But there was no lemon, just a story and yet it was like this was actually happening. This happens all the time with our thoughts. We imagine walking into the gym for our big squat or deadlift session; our heart starts racing a little, we feel nervous or excited … In psychological terms this is referred to as cognitive fusion; this is when the story in our mind and the actual event merge. This is when we react to words about a thing or event, as if that thing or event were actually happening, real or present (Dr Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap, 2007). In a state of cognitive fusion a we believe that;
Thoughts are reality – as if what we are thinking is reality
Thoughts are the truth – we completely believe them
Thoughts are important – we given them our full attention
Thoughts are wise – we assume they know best and follow their orders
Thoughts can be threats – some are deeply disturbing or frightening
So for me my thoughts that “Im not training hard enough”, “I need to do more work”, “Im too weak”, “Im not worthy”, etc etc create a great deal of anxiety, mental stress and pressure with the result being that I entirely believe that I need to fix what is not right. Likewise Jills excessive expectations and fear of failure resulted in extreme physical reactions~not unlike the thought of feeling, touching and tasting a lemon.
Fight, fight, fight or run for your life!!!!
When faced with pressure, stress or challenge, actual or perceived, our bodies initiate a complex chain of physiological reactions to prepare us for the challenge. The event (or thoughts of the event) generate a myriad of chemical reactions within our body to prepare us for battle (adrenaline release, heart rate increase, increase in availability of energy) and an emotional reaction also results, such as fear or excitement; the more threatening the situation, the more pronounced the reaction.
So six weeks out, I start having thoughts of the contest, think I am under-prepared or too weak ~ then comes the fear and the snowballing thoughts of being unworthy, I start feeling physically unwell, fearful and desperate for fixes. Likewise, with Jill, her excessive expectations on herself, fear of failure and fear of not being the best resulted in extreme physical reactions in-turn impacted on contest performance. Meanwhile, both of us were wasting a whole load of energy on unhelpful, irrational thoughts, which could be spent on focused training and contest effort.
There are an infinite number of strategies and it is critical that you find those that work best for you. These are a few that work for Jill and me.
1. Challenging irrational thoughts and mindfulness and awareness
Cognitive defusion as described by Doctor Russ Harris (the Happiness Trap) is the process of stepping back from our thoughts and seeing them for what they really are; words passing through your head. Dr Harris states that this is when we recognise that;
Thoughts are merely sounds, words or stories
Thoughts may or may not be true, we do not automatically believe them
Thoughts may or may not be important, we pay attention only if they are helpful
Thoughts are not instructions and we do not have to obey them
Thoughts may or may not be wise and we do not need to follow their advice
Thoughts are never threats and are not necessarily reality.
One technique as described by Dr Harris, which has been highly effective with me at defusing unhelpful thoughts involves prefacing the thought with “I am having that thought that…”. Simply shifting the thought from “I am under-prepared” to “I am having that thought that I am under-prepared” instantly creates distance from the thought and removes the power of the thought. Harris describes that using this phrase creates an awareness of the process of thinking ~ mindfulness. It also means that we are less likely to take our thoughts literally when distanced from the thought.
Jill stated that looking around between events and really experiencing each aspect of the contest, instead of getting sucked into the vortex of nerves. This was a strategy Jill used to remove the focus from the unhelpful thought and allowed her to remain 100 percent present, focused and in the moment.
2. Preparing the body for the battle
Jill reports that her confidence came 100 percent from contest preparation and she uses this as a key strategy to assist me with my irrational thoughts about preparedness. Jill states that she knew beyond a doubt that she had trained harder and was more prepared than anyone else. “The last 4-5 weeks pre-contest I would find myself challenging myself mentally as much as physically possible with all kinds of crazy methods and personal tests. One example would be going out by myself at 11 pm to do flip tires. Why? Because I did not want to. I wanted to be in bed resting. I would wait until hot, high noon when it was over 100 degrees to train events. Why? Because it was miserable and it made me tougher. It made me feel like for every test I passed I had another notch of self-confidence.”
Jill states that “the wall of discomfort is more like a transparent bubble. 99.5 percent of people hit this bubble and bounce back saying to themselves that’s all they have. I know better. I know that bubble must be penetrated and risen above to become a champion. You must be willing to say I am going to ignore all pain and negative mental messages. I will not stop until my body physically gives out. When you do this you will be shocked at how much farther you can go than you really think you can.”
3. Practical Game Day Strategies
Jill states that a key strategy for her was to desensitise herself, by competing as frequently as possible.
Jill and I both develop clear contest routines that we can focus on and gain security from (i.e. meals, supplements, fluids, electrolytes, warmups, etc). Jill states that on game day “I want to be meditative and collected. Between events you would typically find me laying on the floor somewhere half asleep. I had trained my body to semi shut down and recharge mentally and physically. I learned to not even process stress from a bad lift or event. It would roll off of me (until I got home and would lose a week of sleep going over every minuscule detail of what I should’ve done differently).” Likewise, on game day I have my headphones in, you will not see me discussing placings or engaging in general chatter. I am in my own mind, harnessing every single drop of aggression I can find for my next event, but not a moment too soon; precisely when I need it I unleash it.
As Jill perfectly puts it; “it’s just a contest…For FUN! I’m not curing cancer or saving lives… this lesson was impressed upon me as I stood by my friend’s bed who was dying of cancer at the age of 49. He would have given anything to be able to have his health back. It made me feel kind of silly to put so much stress on myself over something that was supposed to be a hobby.”
And there it is ~ its a contest. After game day, there will be friends, drinks and meat pizza and it will all be but a memory. Keeping the perspective is critical because there is so much more to life.
Having Jill as my critical friend (intelligent, rational, logical and challenging perspective) and coach, as an elite athlete herself, who entirely understands the work that I am doing and my fears of the pending contest, has been an absolute blessing. Jill has helped me implement practical strategies to circumvent my fears such as testing contest events and researching the psychology of the mind, to work through my unhelpful thinking. We are not machines that simply DO stuff ~ we are emotional, thoughtful beings and to reach our full potential, we need to find ways to make our mind and body work in partnership. This means being really honest with ourselves, digging deep, watching your thoughts, being 100 percent present and focused all of the time, and being committed to making the changes that are required to break your unhealthy thought habits and become a better version of you…
Because as the famous quote goes - as you think so you shall become!
If you are going to commit to anything in life, commit to yourself and your values – otherwise what else do you have? Metty 2013