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Tricks for managing stress so you can perform under pressure.
Pressure occurs when you are reminded that what you are about to do is very important, that you will be judged on how you perform, and that you need to do really well. Competing in the Olympic trials is pressure. Having an important job interview is pressure. Taking the SAT is pressure. Pressure always involves importance, judgement and uncertainty. Although it sucks, we must encounter it to survive and thrive. It causes important physical changes in the brain that lead to resilience and it’s nature’s way of thinning the herd.
Stress, on the other hand, is our body’s physical and mental response to pressure—real or imagined. It’s the churning stomach, the increased heart rate, the sudden urge to run to the bathroom, and the worry about whether you’re good enough and who you will be letting down if you suck.
Some triathletes mistakenly try to manage their stress for big races by attempting to redefine the pressure. “Oh, it’s just another race” (no it isn’t), “No one cares how I do” (yes they do). Conversely, other athletes automatically accept their stress response because they’re convinced that pressure is real: “This race really matters” (no it doesn’t), “Everyone is watching me” (no they’re not), “If I don’t podium, everything’s ruined” (no it isn’t).
So when your mind and body freak out at the thought of “needing” to hold onto the lead in your local tri series, you might convince yourself that you’re under pressure. But you’re not. You’re experiencing stress. This is important because pressure can make triathletes do stupid things because one part of the brain (the limbic system) convinces another (the frontal cortex) that the outcome is so important that you should try to do more to save the day. Perhaps you push through injury pain, over train or under eat.
So what can you do if you need to perform under pressure? Focus on managing the stress response by doing this:
1. Force yourself to practice under pressure. Your brain physically changes to help make it easier to cope with these situations in the future.
2. Confront feelings of fear and embarrassment by logically deconstructing what’s actually at stake.
3. Manage anxiety by learning a relaxation technique using an app such as Headspace or Paced Breathing.
4. If you’re right handed, reduce self-conscious thought by squeezing a ball in your left hand (and vice versa). This activates neural pathways in the brain’s right hemisphere to prioritize automatic, subconscious thinking.
5. Avoid distraction by developing a cast iron routine for the days leading up to a big race. Control your ears and eyes by zoning out your gaze and listening to music as you set up transition.
6. Focusing on what you need to do during the race. Plan your race strategy and then commit to the only two things you can control: your effort and attitude.
Dr. Simon Marshall trains triathletes’ brains for Braveheart Coaching based in San Diego, and trains cyclists’ brains for the BMC professional cycling team.