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Performance Psychology Part III

A HUGE part of performance psychology is managing your arousal.

On many occasions, you need to keep it under control.

Here's how.

Controlling Arousal

For most individuals, they need to reduce their level of arousal and the pressure they feel during competition, especially as the level of competition rises. We’ll explore several strategies below that all work to reduce the arousal you feel during competition. The strategies all serve the same basic purpose, with different strategies serving to address different aspects of the arousal process. You may find that certain strategies resonate with you more than others. This may be because a certain strategy solves a particular problem you have, or it could be because the value of the strategy is easier for you to appreciate. Regardless, work with all of the different tactics as you may find you need them when it matters most.

The main concept is that each strategy works to decrease the pressure you might feel and make the situation LESS important, which will appropriately reduce your arousal. In every situation you’re aiming to slow down, calm down, and move towards a calm and collected approach. All of the necessary arousal is going to be operating in the background as a result of the competitive environment. You’ll be in a natural state of arousal, so the goal then becomes keeping that arousal under control.

Nothing special. This is the fundamental attitude that supports performing under pressure. Most athletes believe that they need to do something special in competition, particularly during championship competition. This myth is perpetuated by the idea that the best athletes rise to the occasion, when in actuality they simply repeat their performances. Knowing that you don’t need to perform at a super human level can be reason enough to reduce your arousal to an appropriate level. While it may be an important competition, it’s not a special competition, and extra effort isn’t required.

This attitude is encapsulated by the following quote from multiple time Olympic Champion and World Record Holder Pieter Van den Hoogenband-

‘You can’t go faster than you can go, so why try?’

It’s when we try to more and try to do some extra that we fall short of our potential. Accepting that it’s not even possible let alone necessary will make it much less likely that you’ll do. Remember, it’s important, it’s not special. By accepting that it’s just another competition, and the same skills and strategies that lead to success in the past will lead to success here, you’re much more likely to do what you need to do, and there will be much less pressure associated with doing so.

Control your breathing. When you get excited, nervous, or on edge, your breathing rates tend to accelerate. The depth of breathing tends to get shallower and shallower as well. This leads to an activation of your ‘fight or flight’ systems, which is going to lead to more arousal. It becomes a cycle where you get more and more aroused, pushing you outside your optimal zone.

To calm yourself down, simply focus on slowing down your rate of breathing while ensuring that your breathing more deeply. FULLY exhale after each breath. Wait between breaths. When you catch your breathing getting out of control, actually take the time to really focus on controlling your breathing. You’ll find that your able to calm yourself down very quickly, and you’ll feel like you’re able to get back into control.

While controlling your breathing has straightforward physical benefits, there are also important psychological benefits. It’s also a great way to shift your focus. Many times, your thoughts can begin to get away from you with concerns of ‘what if’, where you’re worried about everything that could go wrong in the future. By focusing your attention on something simple like your breathing, you’re able to change your thoughts. It’s not so much that focusing on your breathing is beneficial, it’s that it prevents you from focusing your attention on topics that are going to be counter-productive.

Nervous or Excited? There is a difference between nervous or excited, and that difference is determined almost entirely by your perceptions. The physical sensations of nervousness and excitement are almost exactly the same. The ‘butterflies’ in your stomach, the racing thoughts, and the shallow breathing are characteristic of both excitement and nervousness. If the physical sensations are the same, how do you know if you’re nervous or excited? It’s simple. YOU decide if you’re nervous or excited. It’s all about interpretation. You may feel the physical sensations and decide, ‘Oh no, I’m really nervous. This is bad.’ Or you may feel the same physical sensations and decide, ‘I’m really excited. This is great!’. The same physical sensations can lead to very different outcomes depending on how you choose to interpret those sensations.

The issue with interpreting arousal as nervousness is that nervousness is considered ‘bad’. This can lead to increased arousal because you’ve introduced fear and uncertainty to the situation. This can lead to more arousal and more pressure because you begin to believe that you’re losing control and that you ‘shouldn’t’ be nervous. At first, you may have to simply consciously reinforce that you’re feeling excitement. You may need almost brainwash yourself. Over time, you’ll start to internalize the symptoms of arousal as excitement rather than nervousness. The more you consistently facilitate this mental shift, the easier it will be to do so on command. Sooner than later, it will be automatic and you’ll begin to positively associate arousal with performance, rather than fear.

Don’t get pumped up. Many athletes will try to get ‘pumped up’ prior to competition with the intent of increasing their performance. You may have done the same. There is a general idea that the more excited and aggressive you are, the better you will perform. While this may be true for low pressure situations as we discussed, it’s typically not true for high pressure situations. The opposite is true.

Generally, speaking more important competitions will naturally move you further along the arousal curve, closer to or even past your optimal point of arousal. Actively, attempting to raise your arousal by getting excited will likely push you well past the optimal point of arousal, exactly what you don’t want to do. Let the excitement of the environment pump you up naturally, and use the other strategies to control and reduce your arousal as necessary.

Let it go. With high levels of arousal, you may experience many different thoughts racing through your mind. Some of these thoughts may be productive, some of these thoughts may be negative, and some of these thoughts may be neutral. As the competitive environment is uncertain most of the time, thoughts of uncertainty are common, and these thoughts tend to be perceived as negative.

If you perceive negative thoughts as ‘bad’, and negative thought are to be avoided, you’re likely to get frustrated when these thoughts do come to mind. As with many things in life, it is our reaction that is the problem more than the original stimulus itself. Beyond the issue of judgment, most swimmers will try to control these thoughts, and because you can’t control what you’re thinking, this just creates frustration, which leads to decreases in performance.

As you can’t really control what thoughts come into your head, negative thoughts will enter your brain, and there is nothing you can do about it. However, you can control the extent to which these thoughts remain at the forefront. You can also control your emotional reaction to these thoughts. The simple solution is that when these thoughts do arise, and they will, simply acknowledge them, understand they are normal, refuse to give them any credence, and move on. By removing the emotional attachment and refusing to dwell on any one thought, you can avoid the challenges that come with ‘negative’ thoughts. Just let it go.

Read the signs. If you find yourself getting ‘nervous’, breathing quickly, or experiencing racing thoughts, these are all signs that your arousal levels are higher than they need to be, and it’s time to intervene. The more aware and attuned you are to what’s happening, the more you can intervene with enough time to positively influence your performance. If you feel your nervousness building, remember to frame that nervousness as excitement. If you notice your breathing is becoming faster and shallower, remember to slow down and fully exhale after each breath. If your thoughts begin to race, know that you need to slow down, let them pass, and move on. The more you are aware of the signs of increasing arousal, and the more you know what those signs feel like, the more you’ll be able to execute the required strategies when it’s most important to do so. As described in the section on increasing arousal, watch out for yawning as it could be a sign you’re over-aroused.

Know the context. The more important the competition or the training session, the more likely you will have a higher baseline level of arousal. Knowing this in advance, it makes sense to go into these situations planning on using more of these strategies. If you know you’re entering a situation that is going to be relatively high pressure and high arousal, begin to use these strategies before you need to.

The more in control you are, the easier it will be to enact any of these strategies. An unfortunate side effective of high arousal is that you’re thinking becomes less clear, and it becomes more difficult to remember what to do. It’s also more difficult to have the discipline to do what you need to do. By implementing strategies to control your arousal early, it will be a lot easier to ensure you compete with the appropriate level of arousal to perform at your best.

Timing. As much as possible, you want to keep arousal under control, using the strategies you find most appropriate. This is even more true the further you are away from the competition. Avoid letting your arousal get away from you in the days and weeks before the competition. It’s really easy to get excited about what’s to come. Unfortunately, all of that excitement is energy that will simply fatigue you. Be disciplined and keep your arousal under control, all the way leading up to the event. As you get very close to competing, you can start to let your arousal bubble up IF you know you can control it. Otherwise, simply use the outlined strategies to keep everything under control.

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