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

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