The early bird gets the worm is a phrase that we have all heard teaching us that those who act promptly usually gain the greatest reward. This phrase can be applied to more than just our work ethic; being aware sooner of how your body responds to fear can set you up for success.
What benefit will awareness play in increasing your overall performance? For one, it can give you time to use prevention techniques to control levels of anxiety. When spotted early enough, you can use interventions such as box breathing drills, imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation to control your heart rate and rising anxiety before it gets too powerful and interferes with your performance.
Understanding the somatic signs might mean you need to refocus or reframe your perspective of what you’re about to do. I remember the first time I skydived, the entire flight up my heart was racing, I wasn’t sure if my chute would open and my stomach was in knots. The door opened, I jumped, I threw my pilot chute and my chute opened. However, the entire time in free fall I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath.
I jumped two more times that day and I realized the warning signs early. While sitting and waiting for the aircraft my hands tingled, my stomach turned, and my breathing quickened. Great!
Great? Yes, great! I was working to become aware of the cues my body was giving as my sympathetic nervous system began activating when faced with a threat (that threat being jumping from a perfectly good airplane). It took a few jumps to figure out what would control these somatic symptoms but after trial and error, I figured it out.
47 jumps later I now have a pre-established routine that consists of reframing the event to focus on the positives, box breathing with a 4-second count, and self-talk.
That is what works for me, and only when jumping. For other events I have different techniques, but it really comes down to three simple steps.
Step 1: Become aware.
What signs is your body giving you to let you know that your sympathetic nervous system is activating your survival mode? Think about how you feel the day before, morning of, or drive to the venue. Think about right before you step on stage/the ice/the field and the thoughts that go through your mind.
Take a minute to write out everything you felt during your last performance that you associate with being anxious. Push back farther and think about the morning before or the night before. Write it out in a bulleted list.
Step 2: Find what works.
This is more of a trial and error, but ultimately it consists of mixing and matching techniques to activate your parasympathetic nervous system to regulate your sympathetic nervous system. This also includes learning when to best apply these techniques. The earlier you can spot the warning signs of fear, the better chances you have to gain control.
Some simple techniques to try include:
- Breathing techniques
- Using music
- Physical movement
- Challenging fears
Step 3: Make a plan.
Now that you have worked to become more aware of the warning signs that your body gives you, you’ve tested out different techniques to find what works, it’s time to put it all together in a plan.
Start by writing out the techniques that work best for you. I used a 3×5 note card originally and I kept it in my car for a quick reminder before going to jump.
If you have a sports equipment bag or something that you travel with to your specific events, put it in there. Read through it the night before and practice the techniques to make sure you understand how they work.
Eventually, you will be able to perform your pre-performance routine without your card and hopefully you will become more comfortable as time goes on. If not, then at least you know what to look for, how to control it, and you have a plan for taking action.
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