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Overcoming Fear (part 1)

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Many athletes will have to face fear as a result of increasing levels of competition, returning to sport after injury, personal challenges, disagreements with coaches, and not living up to their own expectations. Depending on the sport, these fears can relate to actual fighting (full contact sports), injury risk skills (gymnastics), or even defying death (x-games), and can involve teammates or be experienced in isolation. Fear is a part of sport that is comes in a wide spectrum of intensities leading to various outcomes, good and bad. Small amounts of fear can be motivating, exciting, and encouraging, while in larger quantities it can be crippling, discouraging, and result in retiring.
To be sure, facing fear is a part of sport that will usually help to develop the athlete into the person they wish to become, but it isn’t easy. Take the example of a gymnast who was struggling with a fear of skills she had previously accomplished with little to no problem — such a situation can be confusing to all participants. The gymnast in question was confused regarding her new fear — and felt it was overwhelming. The coaches were confused and frustrated that a particular skill that had helped elevate the gymnast’s performance and level now appeared to hold her back. The parents were confused and concerned with the gymnast’s health and well being and wondered what fear and her avoidance would mean in the context of 10+ years of commitment to a sport; would gymnastics no longer be a part of their child’s life? The sport psychologist may be confused because there may not be any direct correlation between a fall, an injury, or a poor performance and the now crippling fear of the gymnast.
In order to overcome fear, it is best to help describe and define what fear is. In this case the gymnast did a great job of describing the fight-or-flight response of her body — and was able to add the third “F” as well: freeze. She and the sport psychologist discussed her perceptions of the particular skill that was lost, why her body might be behaving as it was, and what her mind was doing to alter her behaviors. They discussed the changes in the brain chemistry that can occur when one is faced with fear: neural pathways that become chemically and electrically charged from any number of associations with what the brain perceives to be a threat: thoughts of the skill, location of the performance of the skill (which event, which gym, etc.), people associated with the skill (coach), and a plethora of other connections (smell, taste, time, teammates, feelings). The brain was developed to protect itself and the body, and if any of these neurons are triggered, the body reacts along a spectrum with the fight-flight-freeze response.
The sport psychologist helped the gymnast understand how to face her fears gradually and not rush into things. Together they communicated with the coach and others involved to come up with an acceptable plan for everyone. They progressed forward by first encouraging the gymnast to help her define herself. One of her biggest self-identified qualities was determination. They explored how her determination would help her to face the fear and progress despite discomfort in fear and physical sensations (heart pounding, tight breathing, etc.). The sport psychologist educated and practiced relaxation techniques with the gymnast to help her cope with these experiences.
Slowly at first, but with increasing speed, the gymnast was able to work through her graded exposure to the skills that elicited so much fear. The coach, parents, and sport psychologist were able to apply more and more pressure to the gymnast (as they had previously discussed in their plan) because it encouraged her determination and allowed her to understand the pressure was coming with an attitude and delivery of encouragement and confidence, not judgment and disappointment. Facing her fears with the support surrounding her and her own internal determination, the gymnast was able to overcome her fear.

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