Last week I wrote a blog post titled “Mental State and Competitive Performance” which briefly discussed controlling your emotional and mental state in anticipation of competition. Jacqui asked the obvious question, “…but how do you “practice” controlling your emotions before a competition?” A couple of ideas come to mind. First and most obvious would be putting yourself in competition situations often so you get better at dealing with your emotions from the experience. This is how rookies become veterans. Of course, you may be a rookie and want to get some of that experience before your big competition. In this case you can set up smaller mock competitions with your friends and gym-mates that may have some of that “go time” feeling to them. You may also want to try visualization exercises where you see yourself in that high pressure situation and try to create the atmosphere in your mind and to bring yourself to the emotional state that you want to be in at that moment. One of the things that I would suggest as a long-term habit is regularly placing yourself in new high-pressure situations where you’re going to be nervous trying something new or even slightly dangerous but where you’re still likely to succeed. Gymnasts, traceurs and rock-climbers do this all of the time when they’re trying a new trick, parkour move or climbing route. My old gymnastics training partner used to say things to the effect of “o.k., now I know I’m doing real gymnastics” whenever he started feeling the butterflies fluttering in his stomach. Of course, “real gymnastics” in this context basically meant he was trying something far enough out of his comfort zone to be scared. One way to keep this fear from controlling you is to “look past it” or your relation to it, and focus exclusively on the movements, mechanics and body positions themselves. If you can make yourself do the moves, you’ve achieved the skill, fear or no fear. There is a level of mental control over your emotions that you have to start getting a grip over when you’re putting yourself in this type of situation. There is a point where you know what you have to do and you know you can do it and how to do it, but still, you’ve never done it before. At that point you just have to go for it and once you do you’re committed, there’s no going back and you know that the biggest obstacle is your own head and self-preservation instinct screaming at you to stop. As a matter of fact, if you do try to stop or “go back” once you’re “in”, then you’re in real trouble because you’re a lot more likely to get hurt; there’s no hitting the breaks in the air. It’s time to fly. It really is a beautiful and frightening feeling, and when you start “getting used to it”, although you never really get used to it, you realize that you’ve started to attain an ultimately desirable level of self-mastery, and you can do it again more easily and apply this self-mastery to other skills. Nevertheless, you still have to be careful not to get too cocky because you can still get hurt or die if you make a mistake. It’s always seemed to me that this emotional control applies well to competition situations, at least from self experience and observation of most other people with similar skills, nevertheless I do know at least one excellent and naturally talented gymnast and one amazing lady-rock climber who kind of freak out and aren’t all that good at high stake competition situations but perform extremely well when they’re just practicing their disciplines, so I guess it must not apply universally. Also, people can get comfortable taking new risks in their “field” but may experience more serious mental blocks in something that is similarly frightening in a different discipline. I for one am far more comfortable working through gymnastics progressions, taking that last leap for a big precision jump, or even taking that sixteen foot fall on a lead rope climbing outdoors, but when it comes to going over the edge of even a five or six-foot wave while surfing, oh my God, that really freaks me out. It feels like I’m plunging over a rolling cliff that is about to toss me into an unknown abyss. I’m just not used to it at all. So to me the guys in the following video have achieved close to the consummate level of emotional and mental control. This has got to be one of the scariest things a human being could possibly do. You have to have absolute commitment, and you know you’re going to fall and a mountain of water is going to take you for a roll and you may die, but you do it anyways. This is truly amazing.
I remember a defining character-building moment of my youth. I was about 10 years old and we were on our way to a camping and backpacking trip in Yosemite with the San Francisco Police Activities League (PAL) youth program. We stopped along the way at a pool spot along a river that our instructors were familiar with. At this spot the river widened enough for the current not to be too strong and there were a lot of folks who were bathing or lounging about at the pool spot. Some of them were diving or jumping off of a rock that may have been about twenty feet over the water. I remember telling our guide who was a great mentor to me, Walter Scott, that I was going to jump off that rock into the pool. He said that it was fine and that he would watch, but once I was at the top of the rock my legs literally froze in place and I could not move, I was so scared. I knew that it wasn’t high enough to be unsafe and that the pool was deep enough and that the people who were there to take care of me could pull me out of the water if I needed it, but changing that knowledge into self-confidence was a completely different matter. My friends counted me down at least a dozen times while I had at least that many false starts up at the top of that rock. Finally, after about twenty minutes of waiting Walter gave me “one last chance” at least three times and then waved me down. It was time to go and everyone was packing up. I was so disappointed in myself. I just wasn’t brave enough. I slowly turned around to walk back down the way I came up when I suddenly told myself ”No. I’m going to do it now.” I turned around and ran right over the edge of that rock and as I felt that I had nothing but air underneath my feet I was regretting that last step, looking over my shoulder to see how far away the ledge was but it was too late to get back. It was time to fly. My regret immediately turned to thrill as I dropped and plunged into the freezing cold water. I easily swam to the shore and saw Walter Scott’s concerned and curious look as he asked me if I was O.K. ”I’m Great!” was my strong reply. I couldn’t have possibly felt more alive and excited. During my childhood that moment always reminded me that I was brave and I could make myself do what I decided to do if I really wanted to. It helped form my self-perception for years to come and since then I’ve had a lot more practice. Special thanks to my P.A.L. instructor Walter Scott for the contribution he gave to the lives of so many children growing up, privileged or otherwise. I think that the moral of the story is to regularly put yourself in new and scary situations “outside your comfort zone” where you have to control your nerves and where you have to learn something new about a discipline, skill or maybe just about yourself. Make it a part of your life’s history, just as it is part of the history of human beings and our struggle in life and survival. Just be careful not to get yourself killed.