The Secret to Conquering Your Fears

photo by justin hoch

photo by justin hoch

It's easy for many of us to name of few things we're terrified of. Whether it's public speaking, vegetables, or competition, it's the great equalizer that we all have to deal with. Our mind is a powerful asset that helps us grind through a tough practice, but just as easily can be the reason for losing a competition. A technique that has become more and more popular as of recent is called "mindfulness." The concept of the mindfulness is not to push away or ignore our fears, but instead recognize their existence and learn to live with them. No problem has ever been solved by ignoring it. You learn to understand that your fear is a roommate hanging out in your brain, and it's okay if they stay. You will learn how to live together.

One big misconception is that when you reach a certain skill level, those fears go away. The bad news is that the fears will never go away, so it is to your advantage that you learn to live with them. Even Olympic Champion Helen Maroulis who's proven that she's the best in the world, admitted she deals with intense fears. This is an excerpt from her journal entry in Rio de Janeiro, just before competition:

“I can’t stop crying. I’m making myself sick. For the first time in my life, I explained to Terry [my Coach] what my anxiety was like. What it felt like to be afraid of irrational things. I was always afraid to tell him, because I was afraid he wouldn’t think I was mentally capable of a gold medal. And at the Olympics, I didn’t want to look weak..."
-Helen Maroulis

(from an interview with Sports Illustrated)
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What you should know

The concept of mindfulness is to train our minds to notice each time a thought pattern begins. When you are able to recognize this happening, you can quickly bring yourself back to the present moment. We are most effective in our matches when our mind is open to the present moment in order to react efficiently. 

Mindfulness is not about perfection. This is exactly what makes it great for athletes, and especially for wrestlers. We don't need to do a perfect takedown, we need to remain calm in the present moment to see the takedown to its full completion, no matter how that looks. The more you challenge your mind to notice when you are "drifting," the easier it becomes to stay "in the moment" during high-stress events. Some athletes use a verbal queues to bring themselves back to the present moment, others use physical queues like adjusting their uniform. Start playing with a queue in practice that helps your refocus your attention. 

How do you start

It is up to you to put aside 5 minutes of your day to focus on mindfulness. You can download an app like Headspace or Oak, or set a timer on your phone to do it on your own. Take just a few minutes to start noticing your breath. As thoughts enter, acknowledge them, and bring your attention back to your breath. It's okay to struggle, as this is a practice and never a goal. Increase your time in seated mindfulness meditation as you feel more comfortable. Challenge yourself to be patient and continue to remind yourself to put your focus back on your breath, no matter how many times your mind drifts. 

How do you apply it to life as an athlete

It can be very tempting to control every aspect of your training. We control how hard we push in our workouts, we work on controlling our opponents, our nutrition, or sleep... what about our minds? We ironically do not have as much control over our minds as previously believed. So a mindfulness practice is the ability to learn how to understand our mind. What we can control, however, is where we decide to put our attention. 

Since mindfulness helps clear the mental clutter, athletes can learn how to prevent more mental clutter from entering. Athletes are consistently dealing with thoughts of self doubt, worry, and questioning their actions towards a path of success. Mindfulness allows room for those thoughts, and helps you guide your attention back to what is most important: the moment. Ever heard of someone who was able to compete "in the zone?" The concept of "not thinking" is actually the ability to freely bring their thoughts back to the moment, without judging what does come up. This is a no judgement zone! They simply have chosen not to act on the thoughts that are saying "you can't win this match."  

A skill for life 

Its been proven that our mental health affects our physical well being. As you continue through life being involved in wrestling or not, this is a skill that you can roll over to any aspect of life. The stresses you deal with in wrestling can often be just a small reflection of the mental toughness you learn that helps you through the stresses of life. Use mindfulness as tool, just as you will use the lessons from wrestling to help you through life.