GETTING OVER THE JITTERS WITH WIN
Ihave a paralyzing fear of heights. So great is my fear that, while training on a stationary bike watching a fast, steep descent down the twisty switchbacks of Italy’s Stelvio Pass on Youtube, my hands start to sweat and I shut my eyes. I’d sooner climb t
So it may sound surprising that, going into this summer’s triathlon season, I draw inspiration from my son’s half-brother, diver Nathan Zsombor-Murray. At 15, he competes as Olympian Meaghan Benfeito’s partner in mixed synchro on the 10-metre platform.
I cannot even stand at the edge of the 10-metre platform, never mind dream of doing a reverse dive with a couple of somersaults off of it. But Nathan has been working up to this since he was discovered, at age four, being a daredevil at his neighbourhood pool. His body awareness is absolute,
and he shows no fear. When asked how they beat the Russians and North Koreans after he and Benfeito took gold in the Montreal Diving World Series last spring, he told CBC, “We just had to do every dive like we practiced – just do them like we know how to do them.”
It’s hard to break the kid’s composure, but that international competition in Montreal was the biggest so far in Nathan’s burgeoning career. Two dives into his event, the stress showed.
“My heart was beating really fast,” he said. On the pool deck, dancing around him to Madonna, his partner Benfeito, a veteran at 29, told him, “Just have fun.” It worked. He relaxed, ignored the cameras and pulled off the best dives of the competition, a big grin on his face the whole time.
Do what you practiced and just have fun: That is my mantra this summer.
I have more than 60 triathlons of various lengths behind me since my first one in 2002, and I still get butterflies in my belly before every single race. That means having to force down the oatmeal and bananas at 4:30 a.m. on race day. It means umpteen trips to the johnny-on-thespot before zipping up my wetsuit. (After it is zipped, don’t ask.) It means, for the first 400 m of every swim, feeling certain I will throw up
and drown. I have to work hard not to hyperventilate, and I ask myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And then, magically, at the 400-metre mark, I find my breath and my rhythm and start enjoying myself. The why? is answered.
“It would be unusual, actually, if you didn’t feel some jitters,” says Sharleen Hoar, the lead mental performance consultant at the Canadian Sports Institute-Pacific, who has worked with both the national triathlon and paratriathlon teams and supported athletes and coaches from many disciplines through the last three Olympic Games.
It makes no difference that there is no camera on me and that my best shot at a podium finish in any given race is if I’m one of just three people in my age group. Performance anxiety is about the “perceived importance” of a competition, Hoar tells me. We are biologically programmed for our fight-or-flight response to kick in, whether we’ve just encountered a saber-toothed tiger, or we are about to dive into a cold lake surrounded by thrashing bodies – hence the shallow breathing, sweaty palms and upset stomach.
It’s not pleasurable to start every race feeling that way, Hoar agrees, but she thinks of it as something that can be harnessed.
“It’s free energy,” she says. “It’s free power. Your body is completely activated.”
Hoar says she encourages her athletes to put words to what they’re feeling before a race in order to embrace it and direct that energy into something positive and productive.
“We can use language around, ‘My body is getting me ready to perform at my best. My body is wanting to take on this race,’” she says. Once you know how you’re going to feel – that it is going to be uncomfortable but ultimately productive – you can accept it and create some tactics for coping with it.
She suggests a triathlete might tell herself: “My legs might feel tired and heavy, but I still have to run with a smooth gait, because the smoother I run or the lighter on my feet I feel, the more I am going to persist.”
Hoar throws around words like “acceptance” and “mindfulness” a lot, but coming from her, they do not sound like hype. She says when athletes feel stress or anxiety in a competition, it is usually because their mind is racing ahead, anticipating failure, or stuck in the past, recollecting an uncomfortable or painful experience they’ve already lived through.
“My job is to help my athletes stay connected to themselves in the present,” Hoar says. “That’s all you have to do, string a whole bunch of moments together, moment by moment. In that moment, you can do anything.”
In practical terms, she teaches athletes to override the sympathetic nervous system, which activates the flight-orfight response, with the parasympathetic system, which does the opposite job: slowing down the heart rate and conserving energy. It’s all about learning how to control your breathing, exhaling a couple of seconds longer than you inhale and building a little recovery and relaxation into your body, even in the midst of an important competition.
“If you control the breath, you control the performance,” says Hoar. “You have to breathe to get to the finish line. You get to choose how you’re going to breathe.”
An important part of staying in the present is not trying to evaluate how you’re doing in the middle of a tough part of the race, she says. Save that for a few days after the event. She has an easy-to-remember acronym she employs: WIN, for What’s Important Now.
“What’s important now to help you get back to, ‘Be present. Be here.’ You don’t have to worry about what it looks like at the end of the race. Just worry about what it looks like now,” she says.
Of course, it helps if you’ve put in the work to get to the event. To repeat the words of my hero Nathan, just do what you practiced. Hoar says it’s important to practise your mental skills, too. Figure out what triggers your own performance anxiety and have a plan to manage that trigger. As for having fun, that’s all about getting a dopamine hit from what you are doing. And Hoar says you can build those hits right into your race plan.
“If you’re waiting until the finish line to get a dopamine hit, that’s a lot of pain to go through for that one little hit,” she says, suggesting that you make time for a little up-talk, a little reward for yourself after every small goal achieved, just as you program exactly when you’ll take a swig of water or a gel. Take me, for example, and the physical discomfort I feel at the start of every swim.
“Why not build something in?” Hoar suggests: “Phew. Made it through that 400 metres. I’m proud of myself! Look at my stroke. Boom. You are going to persist.”
Hoar says the science of happiness shows that when we feel good, we problem-solve better, we persevere longer, we put in more effort and the rewards build on themselves.
Remember that this summer as you stand in that pack on the beach, your bowels churning as you wait for the horn blast. You’re doing this because it’s so much fun.
Loreen Pindera is an avid triathlete from Montreal. When she’s not training or writing a regular column for Triathlon Magazine Canada, she’s an editor with CBC News.
OPPOSITE BOTTOM Staying focused on the start line Not everyone gets nervous before the gun OPPOSITE TOP ABOVE Nathan ZsomborMurray and Meaghan Benfeito