What we can learn about fear in sports from the Audi Nines
in collaboration with Benoit Vendeville & Holly Cammell
Watching the Audi Nines live is a mesmerising experience. It's a bluebird day on the Plaine Morte glacier in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. We're at 2,750m - the sun is beaming and the temperature is sharp. From the comfort of the sidelines, you're watching the most mind-blowing acrobatics on an ice sculpture. Folks are flipping, sliding, gliding and soaring across the horizon. Athletes with no fear, and on the odd occasion that they miss their landing - they bounce, absorb, and carry on.
Art meets sport at the Audi Nines snowpark. The aesthetic takes your breath away and the athletes leave you gasping for air- and it has nothing to do with the high altitude! It's a spectacle of gravity-defying agility and sheer fearlessness. We literally are, in every sense of the word, at the SUMMIT.
Then you head back down the mountain and you inevitably cross through the baby slopes to get to the village. It's the other end of the spectrum, a far cry from the summit: Folks are frozen, shoop-shooping with the grace of a mummified Mr Bean. What is it that makes some people so stiff and others turn into superheroes when they hit the snow?
CRACKING THE FEAR FACTOR
Do you remember the first time you learned to ski, skate or snowboard, or even try to balance on an unstable surface? Even if you have a clear picture of what you're trying to do, your body seems to turn to marble, and any movement makes you lose your balance.
Your coach: "Bend your knees!" but as much as you want to do it, your legs are stiff and rigid, and they won't respond.
Coach again: "You just need to relax!" - and all you can think of is, "You think I'm TRYING to look like a stiff??"
We call this the "lego man" effect. But what is happening? Why is it that even with the best of intentions - your body will not cooperate? Let's start by considering how muscular movements work:
ISOTONIC contractions: muscles lengthen (eccentric contraction) and shorten (concentric contraction) to allow movement.
ISOMETRIC contractions: muscles stiffen to hold the position in place (think of your upper arm muscles when you have to screw a lightbulb into the ceiling).
The sticky part: muscles can only carry out one of these contractions at a time. So if a muscle is locked in an ISOMETRIC contraction, this overrides the potential of an ISOTONIC contraction (i.e., movement).
How can this be useful to loosen up the lego man? Why is it that even if we're attempting to move, our body is stuck in "freeze" mode?
A few things come into play that we need to consider:
MOTOR LEARNING PROCESS: i.e., the three inevitable stages of learning we go through with each new skill (at ANY level).
CONSCIOUS FEAR: our conscious interpretation of the events (fear of injury, fear of the unknown, fear of being judged, fear of performing, etc.) triggers nervous responses.
SUBCONSCIOUS FEAR: our body's perception of danger based on our sense of safety: our feelings, and interpretation of the situation, triggering autonomous physical reactions.
HOW CAN THIS HELP TO REDUCE THE LEGO MAN EFFECT?
Considering these three aspects, we can look at how they work and "manipulate" the responses by understanding how we can work WITH the following three different areas.
The Motor Learning Process
Whenever we learn a new skill - whether it's turning "pizza/fries" style or hitting big air with a 360, our neuromuscular system integrates the movement into three stages. Even elite athletes have to start in the cognitive phase, even though their existing skills will swiftly get them to the mastery phase:
Cognitive Phase: Our muscles and nervous system work together to form movement patterns and sense how to move within space. It's a very rough sketch...
Associative Phase: Your body (muscles and nervous system) starts linking the components into a smooth action, but you still need to think about it. The picture starts to form.
Autonomous Phase: Your body has assimilated the movement pattern, and you could almost do the skill in your sleep. It's a masterpiece!
CONSCIOUS & SUBCONSCIOUS FEAR
We all have different fears, and some of these fears persist into adulthood (even if they're irrational!). While I may be afraid of heights, you could be afraid of spiders, and this will affect how your brain interprets new situations and environments. I'm likely to struggle more with ski jumping, while you'll only struggle if you see a furry black thing crawling on the snow.
Fear can become a debilitating factor that takes over our voluntary muscle contractions, with involuntary (isometric) responses. It's the feeling you get when you're TRYING to move, but your body just won't let you. In essence, your body is trying to protect you from whatever endangers your conscious (and unconscious) perception of the situation by unleashing a series of chain reactions:
Muscles "freeze" as an extreme Fight/Flight/Freeze reaction
Muscles contract to prevent hyperextension (also known as the stretch reflex or myotatic effect)
Your feet "grip" on instinct to hold on, contracting your foot and leg muscles (think of your cat trying to grip something to avoid falling in the bathtub)
Muscle guarding: muscles move and shift to protect vulnerable body parts that were previously injured
So how can we go about helping the body reduce the "freeze" effect? Firstly, it's helpful to differentiate between conscious and subconscious fear:
Conscious fear varies from person to person and based on their:
Training & Experience: Our previous experience in dealing with the situation at hand, our transferrable skills and the exposure we've had to a varied approach to training. The more we've been exposed to a variety of physical activities and experiences, the more we develop cognitive skills, adaptability and confidence.
Age: Different age groups perceive danger and trust differently, from infancy to seniority.
Perception: Our perception and feelings about the situation.
Previous traumas: Our past experiences can trigger conscious fear responses and alter our perception.
Mindset: Our personality and how we cope with new challenges or the unknown.
Subconscious fears can be a real minefield to navigate. As the name suggests, they run below our stream of consciousness, so we aren't even aware of them! Sometimes these fears can block us from moving smoothly through the phases of learning, or they can block movement altogether, driven by:
Our senses: Our body's interpretation of dangers and the new environment through the senses
Triggers: Unknown elements that trigger our stress responses
Phobias: Our mind rationalising other fears
Muscle guarding: Our neuromuscular system acting as "memory foam", guarding and protecting vulnerable areas of the body
For both conscious AND subconscious fears, our nervous system is what causes our reactions. Our central nervous system splits into two parts:
The Sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that governs our "FIGHT/FLIGHT" responses - triggering the sympathetic nerves in our spine and moving our limbs (movement/action)
The Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) triggers our Vagal nerves, causes us to either be relaxed or to "freeze" and result in inactivity.
The freeze action is the same as a possum playing dead: the vagal nerve takes over, and we go into FREEZE mode, and our feet grip, our legs become rigid, and meanwhile coach is still yelling "RELAAAAAAAAX!!"
CHILL, BUT READY FOR ACTION!
Is RELAXING the most useful comment when we're trying to get our body to be reactive? Surely it would be much better to find the right stage of reactivity, somewhere between a sloth and a nervous wreck?
In the world of sports science, this is known as the Yerkes-Dodson law: achieving the right state of arousal for optimal performance. When we go into hyperarousal, our brain interprets fear as STRESS. This stress could be competition stress, a new environment, or even worrying about looking silly.
If we want to be James Bond rather than Mr Bean on the slopes, we need our body to get into a state of action.
AROUSAL / ISOTONIC contraction = ACTION
HYPOAROUSAL (relaxed & low reactivity) RELAXED/LETHARGIC
HYPERAROUSAL (freeze, stress & poor movement control) FREEZE OR WOBBLE
How Do You Find The Balance?
Acknowledge and address your fears. Rather than repressing it, observe your emotion and name the barrier.
Develop trust in your body, your environment, and your coach.
Be aware of your capabilities and your limits - know how to set your boundaries of progress and expectations.
Warm up to fully activate the movement patterns and neuromuscular connections, so your body is ready for ACTION!
Ok, we live in the real world. What else can help?
A music playlist that will make you feel like Rocky Balboa
Deep breaths and focusing on the beauty of the landscape
Good company that keeps you laughing
Rescue Remedy spray or pastilles
A swift half-pint on the slopes or some mulled wine...
We'll stop there...
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