Fear. The very mention of the “f word” can result in a myriad of competing responses from coaches, athletes and parents. Learning what fear actually is- and how we can use it to our advantage- is what the next few blogs will be about.
Let’s begin with coaches. Fear is not something often talked about or acknowledged as a factor worth understanding in sports circles. If you are a coach who has not been in touch with your own early experiences of fear, nor learned how to apply a process for integrating those experiences, you will not be comfortable witnessing this emotion in your players. Typical responses from unaware coaches tend to be dismissive, controlling, or avoiding.
Working with teams over the last two decades, I have yet to see success in overcoming debilitating fear through dismissing, avoiding or trying to control an athlete. Common oversimplified responses tend to revolve around references to a lack of mental toughness. I have not heard a sound explanation from coaches of what exactly this term means, nor specifically how one can acquire it as an athlete. If you ask young athletes, their understanding, particularly in the case of males, is to ignore or swallow your emotions, and get on with winning. If only it were that simple!
In reality, fear, like any other emotion or feeling, is human- neither positive or negative. Evaluating fear as negative is like randomly deciding that the color red is bad, while blue is somehow good. A more analytical approach takes reflection, awareness, and the ability to put theory into practice. It takes time to do this. Most often coaches tend to rely on shouting more, benching athletes, or patiently trying to talk them out of their feelings. None of this works.
What does work is providing athletes with resources that can help them understand how fear works, and what experiences and/or genetic predispositions might be contributing to their current response to pressure, both on and off the court. Psychologists, doctors, counsellors, mental performance coaches and experienced mentors all come to mind. These helpful adults are usually available, at no cost to student- athletes, right on campus, yet few coaches seem to refer to them. It is in the best interests of the whole team to discover whatever can be helpful in the pursuit of performance excellence.
It's also important to begin the learning and self-awareness process early. Recent focus on fundamentals at each stage of the athlete’s physical development is a great start, so why not provide this on the psychological side as well? We want our athletes to accept that there are times when they may feel less prepared to do what’s required for success, and to teach them concrete ways to move through this without ignoring its potential to significantly interfere with their performance! Our hope is that by the time they decide to play at a higher level, they will have both awareness and solid tools for dealing with fear and anxiety.
Another common word for fear is stress, and the physiological response to a stressor is what needs to be recognized and understood. Instead of viewing the rush of adrenaline, the quicker breathing, the higher heartrate, and the urge to flee or fight as a problem- we need to see it as a gift that the species has had built in since time began. In fact, without this gut response to perceived threat, we would have been extinct by now! So when a coach is faced with a talented athlete who expresses verbally or through body language that s/he is feeling fearful, the more effective response is to acknowledge that reality and provide education about how to use it.
The mindful and self- aware coach (or associated staff) could explain that understanding your natural tendencies under pressure is a good thing, and that tools such as meditation, yoga breathing, positive self-talk, and visualization will all contribute to the ability to move through (versus avoid) fear. Just as you expect athletes to practice drills, shoot regularly, go to the weight room, and take care of their bodies, so should it be made clear that taking care of your mind is equally important. We have all watched the exciting results when two equally talented teams compete, and we witness the inner strength and capacity of the winning team to tap into their mental skills.
The opposite of fear is confidence. Coaches can model this for their teams when that confidence is based on knowing yourself, knowing your athletes, and integrating your many years of experience into a desire to lead the way to optimal physical and mental health in sport! If we can teach our kids to understand and effectively deal with the natural emotion of fear on the court, we are confident this skill will easily translate into life long after they finish sports!