Mechanics of Fear
Fear comes in many different forms. Fear of failing, fear of losing. Fear of injury, fear of embarrassment. Hesitation is a mild reaction that can be between you and the podium. Sometimes fear can be a good boost to motivation. Quite often fear has significant impact on the athlete’s performance. I wonder if it would made sense to understand how fear works inside our minds. Let’s examine. What’s the process that creates fear?
To start, let’s look what fear is. It helps us to understand the mechanics.
Firstly, fear is a feeling and a reaction. Fear is a response to something. I believe it’s quite easy to agree with this. Athletes are afraid of something. If something wouldn’t exist, athletes wouldn’t be afraid. I know this sounds obvious, but still many people think that fear is something that “just comes, I can’t help it”. So, fear needs a trigger. Something, some event, needs to happen before the fear.
Secondly, we all think differently about these trigger events. That’s true even if two athletes are witnessing the same physical event. It’s always a personal interpretation, that a person thinks as the “truth”.
Alice and Bob, our two snowboarders, are together on top of the hill and looking at the big jump. They’ve grown and skied together their whole life. What happens? Bob is afraid of the big jump. He notices how high in the air the other snowboarders are jumping. The impact while landing could be dangerous, really dangerous. Alice, on the other hand, sees the others flying high in the air. Free like a bird. She feels true love for her sports and can’t wait for her turn.
Who’s right, Alice or Bob?
The way athletes think about the events is not universal. Even if people see the same thing, they make different interpretations. Humans have the ability also to change their perspective. Sometimes people find it difficult to understand, so make sure you internalize this: there’s no universal truth here. One’s fear is the other’s freedom.
One additional note here about Bob. He’s also really stressed about the upcoming competition. He’s afraid that he might fail big time. He thinks how his friends wouldn’t appreciate him anymore. In the previous case of the big jump, the event was a “real” one. In the case of the upcoming competition, the fear comes from a fictional event. The competition does not yet exist. He’s hallucinating. Still he feels afraid.
This brings us to the third point.
For the neurology, it doesn’t make any difference whether the events are “real” or imaginary. The effects are the same. They both can trigger fear, or any other feeling for that matter. I wonder what kind of hallucinations you might have.
Now, if we generalize Alice’s and Bob’s experience into a sequence, the mechanics of fear might look something like this:
1. Something happens (true or fictional) ⇒ 2. Athlete notices it ⇒ 3. Athlete starts to think about it in a certain specific way ⇒ 4. Based on that the mind creates a certain response ⇒ 5. Possibly a feeling is created ⇒ 6. If it's a feeling it can be fear
One needs to go through a long chain of events before being afraid! Lots of work.
This is a simplification, an example. There can be loops, more detailed steps, and so on. Still, it describes well enough the mechanics: Something leads to something. A leads to B leads to C leads to fear. This is one kind of mental strategy – and yes, they are typically subconscious1. Typically the athlete executes a mental strategy that the brain has learned to do. She may have practiced the skill of being afraid many times, and become excellent in it.
What’s in it for you?
Feelings don’t just come out of the blue. They are a response. They come through a process. An athlete is doing something in her mind to get those feelings. Consciously and subconsciously. In order to be afraid, the athlete needs to pick up specific things from the real world or from imagination. Then she thinks about them in a certain bad way. Many times this process is subconscious and people have been learning how to do – by doing it over and over. It may have become a normal way for an athlete to react in a situation. Luckily, the process and mechanics of an athlete’s fear can be examined, changed, tweaked and optimized – if it’s needed and good for the athlete. It’s possible to overcome your fear. Or, as some has said after escaping from a limiting fear, wake-up from a bad dream.
UPDATE: Part 2 can be found here: Breakpoints of Chain Reaction