FEAR. It paralyzes; makes us sick, evokes feelings of panic and dread. Yet somehow we forge ahead in spite of it.
Helping athletes navigate fear is an integral part of a coach’s job. It takes various forms such as anxiety, doubt, nervousness, jitters, panic, and terror. The M.O. for many of us including athletes is to run from fear and refuse to acknowledge its existence.
My own relationship to fear changed dramatically about 10 years ago when I discovered the works of David R. Hawkins. As a world-renowned psychiatrist and expert on consciousness, Hawkins landed on the lecture stage and wrote several life-changing books.
In his popular 12-volume “Office Visit Series”, Hawkins lectures on a particular emotional state such as fear, anger, grief, addiction, depression, pain and suffering and gives us guidance on how to cope and process through each of them.
“All fear is an illusion” – David R. Hawkins
In his lecture called Worry, Fear, and Anxiety, Hawkins explains when we feel afraid, what we actually experience is not “fear” but the body’s manifestation of fear. This feeling can be in the form of a pounding heart, rapid breathing, shaky legs, nausea or butterflies in the stomach.
There isn’t an athlete alive who isn’t intimately familiar with at least one of those sensations prior to performing at a big event.
The key, Hawkins says is to “resist resisting”. Embrace the uncomfortable feeling in the body and avoid the urge to get rid of it! Close your eyes, take the focus to whatever sensation you’re feeling and stay with it without trying to name it or label it.
What happens next is surprising! Having the courage to soldier through what feels like absolute misery, that sickening feeling in the gut or pounding heart dissipates in a minute or so. We learn that just by staying with uncomfortable bodily sensations, they are finite and disappear.
Until I heard this podcast with Kristen Ulmer, I had never heard another expert besides Hawkins talk about handling fear.
A “fear specialist”, Ulmer works with people in all walks of life to help them face and overcome their fears. [Check out her book: The Art of Fear].
In her, work Ulmer draws from her 12-year-long experience as one of the world’s best extreme skiers. To not feel afraid before plunging down a steep mountain with precipitous drop-offs … would be an outright lie! Ulmer knew with just one slip, she could fall to her death.
Yet during those years as an extreme athlete, Ulmer says she dealt with her fear by avoiding it. She pushed it down and pretended it did not exist. Eventually, the denial and anxiety this caused caught up with her. So it was in her journey to cope and heal herself that shifted Ulmer into her life’s work of helping others.
Her message is encouraging and uplifting because it puts fear in a different context. Instead of dragging us down we can use its positive energy to fuel our performance and ultimately realize greater achievements.