Learn How To Overcome The Invisible Pull of Irrational Behaviour
In male gymnastics, the horizontal bar is a singular steel tube typically 10-11 feet (3-3.4 metres) off the ground and 3cm in diameter. Male gymnasts swing around the bar conducting many one and two hand combinational movements, directional changes and release and catches before a multiple somersault and/or twisting dismount.
It is a spectacular event to both watch and take part in. It is also one of the more dangerous apparatus too as a fall at best is quite painful and has occasionally been fatal.
As someone who excelled at this complex discipline over and above the other five apparatus in this sport, I made my name as a dynamic and innovative High Bar (Horizontal Bar) worker.
Back in the 80s my routines consisted of some complicated one and two handed release and catch moves and a very intricate and unique one arm sequence before my multiple somersault dismount – for it’s time a radical and difficult routine by International standards.
Not being a very tall gymnast, the High Bar always appeared so incredibly high to me. This was both daunting and advantageous at the same time. It gave me more time to fit in complex somersaults and my small stature made the biomechanics of the moves more efficient… on the other hand I also had further to fall! A big disadvantage when things didn’t go to plan.
Our disciplined team trained hard and it was all about dominating on competition day.
I can still remember the feelings as I nervously waited for the judges to give me the nod to commence my routine. As I paced up and down in anticipation, I felt the butterflies in my stomach more so on High Bar than any other apparatus but this seemed to give me an edge.
I had earned the reputation as being a tenacious competitor and one who was reliable during tough times, however we had one of Great Britain’s tallest gymnasts in our club, Alan Hay, so the bar was often placed on extension blocks to increase it’s height by another 10-12 inches. This was something I found particularly unnerving on competition days (…interestingly, it was not an issue during training?). At the time, I believed my nerves came from my fear of what may happen to me if I fell or injured myself, I had certainly experienced my fair share of injuries as a Gymnast during my training over the years.
I can vividly remember one particular competition day when I was the last to compete… the atmosphere was electric! The competition had been fiercely close and the expectations placed on me from my peers, my coach, my parents and the audience were overwhelming.
I had trained my high bar routine hundreds of times without mistake and it was my specialty – a ‘good’ routine from me was all that was required for our team to win – yet I was scared, more scared than any other time or competition before.
The fear I was feeling was consuming my every thought! It was uncontrollable and all I wanted was to find a way out, to run away and not have to do the routine at all.
The pressure was too intense, the bar had grown to 20 feet tall (at least in my mind anyway) and I was sure I hadn’t done enough preparation.
‘Just one more practice run,’ I thought, ‘One more training session was needed – surely if I explained it to the judges they would understand! They would allow me a little more preparation time – I mean they had taken so long doing their thing a little ‘me’ time was only fair, right?’
As every moment ticked by, I was creating multiple scenarios in my mind…
The longer the judges took to be ready for me…
The more unready I became for them…
The more possibilities of failure I could imagine…
The more damage to my body I could think of…
And the more ways my parents, my peers, my coach and the audience could voice their disappointment in me…
…Aaaahhhh! It was all too much.
For many years after I thought of that competition and the wild thoughts that had been dominating my mind – maybe it was the danger of the sport that made me fearful that day… maybe I hadn’t prepared enough… or maybe I just wasn’t as brave as I had initially thought I was?
Whatever mind malfunction had caused the mental meltdown for me that day – it had left a lasting imprint and impacted greatly on my performance as I missed both my release and catch moves and fell on my landing.
We came second.
It was many years later when as a performance coach I began looking at managing emotional states in other athletes that I realised what exactly had gone on in my head all those years earlier. What I thought of as pure, debilitating FEAR was in fact not fear at all – well, not fear in it’s purest form anyway. It was an irrational anxiety I had personally created in my mind around the self-manufactured, fictional outcomes that would probably never eventuate.
It was a set of worst case scenarios, strung together to create a catastrophic outcome that had little or no rational basis. I had created a horror movie in my mind that I believed to be completely true. Not only did I believe it – I convinced myself it was inevitable. I had trained and competed that routine countless times without catastrophe, without incident and without injury… yet, my IMAGINATION had built an outcome that stopped me dead in my tracks… because I allowed it.
So if I was not FEARFUL of hurting myself – as there was no credible foundation to that basis – what was affecting me? What I was doing was allowing my very vivid and creative imagination to fool my reality, to be out of control, fueled by my ‘heightened emotions’ which, in turn clouded my rational judgment process. Together these two became unstoppable in my systematic personal destruction of my own self-confidence.
Essentially, I believed my own virtual world or doom.
I have seen this same self-destructive pattern affect athletes in every imaginable situation and sport. From world class platform divers to competitive school chess, Formula One racing to lawn bowls, Olympic Ski Jumping to Synchronised Swimming. irrespective of the perceived or actual physical threat level, the perception of imagination and emotionally fueled fear was the same and just as debilitating.
When we explore the science of this situation, when we are faced with physical or psychological threat we become fearful and our ‘Fight or Flight’ mechanism kicks in to preserve our life. Our brain fires into action, our thalamus, sensory cortex, hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus all kick into gear, hardwired to protect us from harm. When activated, a sequence of nerve cells fire off and chemicals like adrenalin, norepinephrine and hydrocortisone are deployed into our bloodstream – charging into action like the cavalry.
These chemicals, once deployed, cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes, our respiratory rate increases, blood is moved away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, giving extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our awareness heightens, our sight sharpens, our impulses quicken, our perception of pain decreases and we become prepared physically and psychologically for action.
Clearly a ‘controlled’ amount of these physical, psychological and neurological responses would have enhanced my performance greatly that day and on any other day. A heightened sensory awareness without the debilitating emotional drain would have optimised my performance.
Yet I had allowed my imagination to consume me and my senses, my imagination was far greater than my actual physical FEAR so dominated my energy, my clarity and my emotions. My fictional scenario had won the day causing me to succumb to uncontrollable nerves and loss of focus.
So how do we overcome our powerful imagination and emotionally charged responses in favour of a more controlled heightened sense of awareness during performance?
Step One: Dis-Association
Learn to look and assess an action pragmatically and with a degree of dis-association, teach our minds to remove all emotional baggage associated to that action or outcome and look at it for what it is, what it has achieved, what needs improvement and what it can do as an end-step outcome.
Understanding a move, a sequence or a performance as a single action and something that is replicable. So we put it into perspective – removing the emotional charge.
Of course during major events our emotions do increase anyway, however starting from a lower point enables us to control them more.
If you watch tennis and in particular Roger Federer, he plays with a great deal of disassociation, almost appearing disinterested – this allows him to assess a play and choose to replicate it, correct it or remove it without getting emotionally attached to the past action.
Step Two: Use Your Imagination For Good Not Evil
Visualise the action, the outcome, how it should be performed and lower any anxiety associated to the skill or the event.
Visualisation creates the SAME neural paths with the SAME intensity as actual performance. This allows us to remove the ‘unknown’ factor – lowering anxiety.
Step Three: Train As Though It Is A Competition
Desensitise your emotions to being judged or the perceived importance of THAT one performance. Use specific words, phrases – add rhythmical chants and affirmations to reinforce continuity.
These three key skills can make the difference between a successful performance and one you wish you could forget.