It’s easy to see its green scales when you’re shining a light on a competition platform. It may be your first competition, or maybe your third. You’re in a chair in the back, but you can see the barbell they’re loading for your attempt. The tail of the dragon is laying on your barbell, keeping the treasure from your view. You can’t think what it would be like to take the prize. All you can feel is the fear of facing the dragon.
Sometimes it shows up on a random Tuesday at the gym even when you’re not competing. You don’t know what to look for through the darkness. You feel warm breath on the back of your neck and you freeze, paralyzed with fear. And you don’t yet even know to ask the question, "What do I fear?"
Fear Creates Physical Symptoms
Anxiety shows itself first as pain, during both competitions and workouts. In tournaments, it’s the fear of rejection and inadequacy. During your training, it comes as physical pain that becomes a barrier, a force that tells you to stop.
The pain creates uncertainty and obsessive thoughts. If you keep pushing, it could show you how inadequate or unprepared you are. Better to stay before you reach this point and remain ignorant as to whether it would've overtaken you or not.
Your heart races. Your psychological stress causes these physiological responses. But as these physical symptoms increase, your mental state is further heightened by them and feeds back into a loop.
Focus On Now
Once most people reach this level of alarm and are caught in a negative loop, it's difficult to separate themselves from their thoughts. They’re no longer problem-solving. The feelings are just appearing and repeating themselves at a frantic pace.
But what people are afraid of most is where most people focus their attention—and that's in the future. When they feel the physical pain pushing their bodies through some new kind of threshold, or experience the mental stress, the uneasy feeling in their stomachs, and the adrenal response that comes from facing competition and having to perform, they’re not afraid in that moment.
They’re scared of the next moment, and what the uncertain future may hold. The current moment is what's real, and it's already been dealt with and endured.
Telling someone that the future is an idea and that they’re already dealing with the pain is as good as telling someone who’s having a panic attack to relax. How do we practice living in a way that we can face the moment of pain and stress and realize we are in it already and already dealing with it?
You don’t have to meditate, and I won’t be the one to tell you to start. No particular type of meditation is a requirement to deal with this fear. But you should try to sit without intention, no mantra, and no technique from some clinic, or book, or spiritual teacher. Just relax and see what happens.
I can tell you what happens because I did it. Without any techniques or particular practice, I sat, and my mind began to jump from one thing to the next. I was restless, and my body started to ache so much that I wanted to get up and move.
It was uncomfortable, both physically and psychologically. I began walking around because I figured I had to find a position where my mind could find peace, and I couldn’t do that with discomfort consuming my mind.
Eventually, I decided to learn more about the practice of meditation and started listening to a guided meditation where the speaker addressed the feeling of discomfort in your legs and back that you get from sitting.
- He said it was okay to move if it was intentional.
- Then he said that you could also stay where you are, even in the discomfort, and not move to relieve it, but rather experience the pain as it is, without thinking of it as something good or bad.
- He spoke of bringing attention to the pain itself.
- Was it something you couldn't tolerate? To say no would be untrue because if you were feeling it, you were already withstanding it.
What made my mind race was the fear of future pain, of what it would or could be. And then my mind stopped racing.
More than any training session, speech from a coach, or push from a training partner, intentionally and strategically exposing myself to cold has helped me build more grit, resolve, and a higher capacity to endure and move forward into a place of certainty in my training.
I try to take cold showers regularly and ice baths occasionally. I’ll intentionally go outside when it’s cold with light clothing. This past winter, I made a very public commitment to wearing shorts until January in the early months of a New York winter.
What you believe cold therapy does or doesn’t do physiologically doesn’t matter. But no one can deny that there’s something genuine that happens to you psychologically when you stop treating yourself like you may break.
- Yes, we can be hurt.
- Yes, we can be fragile.
- Yes, we should be careful when you’re exposing yourself to a cold climate.
- Do not arbitrarily push harder to feel like a tough guy.
But let me tell you what happens when you stand under a cold shower:
- When the water first hits your body, you recoil and close down.
- Your mind thinks only of one thing—the cold.
- Your body wants to survive.
- Your mind isn’t concerned with any distant fear, competition, or unknown.
- Your mind is only concerned with the current moment.
If you can stay in the cold and be present in the moment long enough, you realize that you aren’t dying. Your body will even begin to relax and open again. And if you can withstand that, something is imprinted on your mind, at least, subconsciously.
Being in the cold, you can learn to change your relationship with what is uncomfortable and build what people label as mental toughness. But it’s not about learning how to grit your teeth and aggressively push and berate yourself to taking action. It’s changing your impression of what difficult is, and who you are when you meet it.
Use Your Breath
Seven deep, controlled breaths will decrease blood pressure in someone agitated. Deep breathing would seem to be a practical action step when pushing up against that wall of your limit and wanting to quit. If you haven’t first spent time in the dedicated practice of breathing methods when you’re calm, you may not have the capacity or the insight to use the breath.
Instead of calming you, it may just frustrate you, and instead of improving performance, it may just be something else to make your mind race. If you take time to practice in a quiet, relaxed place, you’ll be able to use it as a tool when needed. Here are just two, among many, efficient methods to start.
To simplify it, you breathe in for a given count, hold the breath for a given count, exhale for a given count, and hold without air in the lungs for a given count. A straightforward and effective structure would be to:
- Inhale for five seconds.
- Hold for five.
- Exhale for five.
- Hold for five.
- Repeat for five to ten rounds.
The idea is to focus the breath low in your abdomen then expand it to your sides and toward your diaphragm, then to your chest, and finally to your shoulders, like a wave.
Practice in a calm environment before you use it to negate any panicked moments.
Simple Belly Breathing
Lay face down and focus on breathing into your belly so that the air pushes your midsection up or sit with your hand on your stomach and breathe deeply through your nose for 3-5 seconds while you feel your hand move with your stomach.
Learning these breathing patterns will create a healthier function and help you control your responses the moment your breathing becomes labored, and your anxiety increases.
Press Into Your Fears
Feeling something's lurking but not knowing where or what is paralyzing. It’s why many people would rather quit than learn more about what’s holding them back. So, you avoid it, turn your eyes down, and the fear grows.
When you don’t look at the dragon, you don’t know how big it is. Maybe it’s something you can learn to deal with, perhaps even defeat. And who knows how strong you could be both physically and mentally and who knows what’s waiting for you on the other side of that green, scaly tail?
Try these techniques and press into your fears, the pain, uncertainty of training, and into testing yourself in competition with the belief you have the tools to face that dragon.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.