Aug 5, 2014

Lions, Tigers, and Bears

This article is adapted from Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s, Let them be eaten by bears: A fearless guide to taking our kids into the great outdoors, Perigee Books (2013)

I’m afraid of sharks – this is not a rational fear because I live in Ontario, Canada and there are no shark-infested waters anywhere near where I live. I’ve never been attacked by a shark or even ever seen a shark (except at the aquarium). Yes, I have swum in the ocean and I have frolicked in the waves in the Caribbean, but I’ve never encountered a shark. My fear is irrational but very much real. How real? I look to make sure there are no sharks when I swim in fresh water lakes, and my heart rate goes up and I feel sick to my stomach if I can’t see the bottom of the lake. To be honest, I freak out if any of the tiny fish or weeds at the bottom of the lake touch me. Who knows, they might be sharks?!

Fear is an interesting emotion because we learn about fear in many different ways. I know I learned about sharks in the Caribbean, because I spent a lot of time there with my family on vacations when I was young; but like I said, I never actually saw a shark in its natural habitat, not ever. It could be that I grew up when the movie Jaws was a big hit, so maybe that influenced my fear. Who knows? All I know is that I am afraid of sharks, at that’s pretty much my only fear, and it’s a big one.

Fear is one of the most basic human emotions, and it can be conditioned. What I mean by basic is that it serves a basic function in our survival as a species (e.g., having a fear of dark shadows in the night might keep us alive), and by conditioned I mean that we learn to fear things by how those around us react or by what we are told. For example, when my daughter was a toddler we’d go to the park and she’d explore the playground equipment. I would stay near her and teach her how to climb. “Ok, hold on with a good solid grip and try to keep at least three points of contact on the equipment,” I’d say so that she could figure it out and explore in a safer way. What I didn’t do, however, was say things like “Don’t climb too high and be careful because you’ll get hurt if you fall.” Look at the difference in what I am saying and implying in those two situations. By giving her instructions about how to climb, I am helping her explore the equipment and learn to be self-sufficient and safe. I don’t imply fear. On the other hand, by telling her to be careful and that she might get hurt, I am implying that playground equipment should be feared because you will get hurt if you play on it. That’s conditioning. Some conditioning is important when it comes to fear. If a toddler reaches for a hot stove top, yelling “No, don’t touch!” will jolt her and make her afraid (because of the yelling) and she will associate a hot stove top with fear, and thus will be conditioned to fear the stove top. That’s a protective fear. How people around us respond physically to situations conditions us to behave and react in a certain way. This can be beneficial, but most often it’s not.

So how does this have anything to do with sports? Well, let me explain a bit more about how fear works and then we’ll get to the sports piece. Bear with me here for a few more paragraphs.

In our brains, fear follows two pathways at the same time: the low road and the high road. The low road is the quick fear response. The fear stimulus causes the brain to send sensory data to the thalamus. The thalamus doesn’t know if the signals it’s receiving are signs of danger or not, but it errs on the side of caution and assumes it might be danger so it sends the information to the amygdala. The amygdala wants to protect the body so it tells the hypothalamus to initiate the fight-or-flight response – this is the response that causes your heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension, among other things to go up so that you can react quickly and survive (fight or flight). That’s the fast route and it’s fast, very fast. The whole process happens before you even realise what’s going on. It happens automatically and unconsciously, which makes it super-fast. That’s why we sometimes run or duck when we notice a small object flying towards our head, before we’ve put any information into context – we simply respond to stay ‘safe’ (it could have been a large predator bird attacking us!). Even though there was no real danger, our body responds quickly to get us out of danger (and we feel it – heart is beating, palms are sweating, etc.).

The high road is a little more thoughtful. While the low road is doing its thing, the high road is considering all of the options. Think of the high road response as the employee who is required to send the information to upper management to assess all the options before making any decisions. Only once upper management has looked over all the information and all possible options does the employee get the go-ahead to act based on the decisions made by upper-management. In the high road fear response, the thalamus sends the sensory data to the sensory cortex where the information is interpreted. The sensory cortex interprets that there is more than one possible interpretation of the data so it sends the data to the hippocampus to figure out context. The hippocampus asks questions like, “Have I even heard this sound before?” And “If yes, then what does this sound mean? Was I hurt the last time? Am I likely going to get hurt this time if I stay here or is it safer to run away?” The hippocampus can pick up other data and determine if the person is in real danger or not. If there is no real danger then the hippocampus will send a signal to the amygdala to shut off the fight-or-flight response. All of this takes time.

Now remember that both of these responses are happening at the same time, albeit one is happening faster than the other. So that’s why even when you figure out that the tiny bird swooping overhead is not a deadly Pterodactyl (it might happen!) your heart is pounding and you’ve run for cover. To complicate things a bit more, sometimes our brain gets stuck in between both responses and we end up doing nothing (the dear-in-headlights effect). One pathway is saying “Run, run, run!” while the other pathway is saying “Hmmm, I’m not sure that shape is anything to be feared, I haven’t seen that shape before but I’m not convinced it’s anything dangerous.” When this happens, we’re frozen by fear and we’re unable to move. One system says “Go!”, while the other system says “Hold on a minute.” It takes us a few minutes to be able to do anything at all.

So how does this have anything to do with sports? Here’s the answer. I’ll give you one sport example, but I trust that you can figure out how to apply it to your sport. Let’s take a hockey coach who yells from the bench, “No, not that play! No, don’t pass, skate! Why are you passing? Shoot! Shoot! Why didn’t you shoot?” The young athlete comes back to the bench and the coach says “that was a dumb pass, why did you do that?” So this athlete, who is conditioned to listen and obey to the coach is now afraid to make mistakes for fear of getting yelled at by his coach. So the next time he gets on the ice, instead of playing with instinct and trusting his skills, he overthinks the play and ends up making another mistake or freezes and makes no play whatsoever. His fear response kicks into high gear because he’s being conditioned to be afraid to make a mistake! Repeat this scenario game after game, or year after year, and you have an athlete who is frozen by fear and unable to make decisions on game day. I’ve seen it often, this same athlete is a fabulous practice player but come game day, he’s tentative or indecisive and plays with “fear”. And yet, he doesn’t understand why he freezes up in games. This fear response becomes a habit and the athlete says things like, “I’m not good on game day, I get really nervous and I just can’t play well. I’m no good.” This type of self-talk won’t get him anywhere and certainly won’t help him be successful. In fact, if the athlete continues to repeat this self-talk, over time it will become his truth.

If the athlete wants to be successful however, he has to face his fears and acknowledge them. He has to say “OK, I am afraid of making a mistake because I am afraid that my coach will yell at me, so my fear response kicks in and makes me feel nauseous. Since I can’t control my coach’s reaction, all I can do is focus on what I control, which is what I can do. So if I allow myself to calm down and relax my breathing and thoughts, focus on the key things that I need to do and do those things well, I will be successful.” Of course, this is easier said than done and requires learning important mental skills such as self-talk and breathing and relaxation skills, etc. Getting help with learning these skills can be very beneficial for an athlete. Also, having a coach that doesn’t yell and scream while the athlete is trying to perform might help too.

We can train or retrain the body and mind – this can be physical, mental, or both. We can anticipate struggles and train to be adaptive and capable. Mental preparation and mental sharpness are keys to success. The ability to be calm when everything inside us tells us to run requires practice. Remaining calm in the face of fear – real or perceived – is counterintuitive. That’s why we have to work with our fear or anxiety, and learn skills to help us relax and remain calm so that we are able to ‘override’ the fear response. These mental skills are worth learning and can have a tremendous positive impact on performance. Train yourself to adapt and respond differently to situations that, for whatever reason, cause your fear response to kick in. Relaxation, breathing, and calming skills are important mental skills that can and should be developed as an athlete.