Why do so many athletes cry when they lose? What creates pre-competition anxiety? How can a singular athletic event leave the strongest of men or women a broken shell of themselves?
As a kid, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. My terrible eye site and lack of bat speed and height would have certainly kept that from being a reality, but it’s not the realization that made me quit what I loved doing more than anything in the world. My coach at the time was the scariest human I’d ever met. He was a huge man, screamed at the top of his lungs, and made me run laps for the slightest of infractions. He made me hate baseball. I wonder how many kids light he’s extinguished since then. Years later, I stopped watching traditional sports when I realized all these games played with balls are just pretend combat.
When I left competitive bodybuilding, nineteen years ago, my self image was in a spiral. Not only did now hate something I had been doing competitively since I was fourteen, I began to look drastically different. Like a normal human. People in the bodybuilding community felt sorry for me. Depression ensued. I no longer knew who I was.
In combat sports, the pain of loss takes on new meaning. Being physically bested by a similarly skilled opponent in a fight or match can break the ego. Our idea of who we are is all too often linked to what others think of us, or at least our perceptions of their thoughts.
Here in lies the problem. Assumed perceptions create false beliefs about ourselves. The story you repeat becomes your gospel. This is why when one of my students says “This is my bad knee,” I quickly stop them. Identifying any part of yourself as “bad” is the most powerful form of judgement. Anything labeled as negative will take on that meaning, no matter whether there is truth in it or not.
Fighting often involves taking someone to the verge of death in training until they submit to your dominance. The fragile ego, particularly one built through a lifetime of athletic success and alpha male status, can crumble when faced with even the possiblity of defeat. What will my friends and family say? What will my coach say. What will my students think if I lose.
When I was a brown belt, I began to hate jiu jitsu. The amount of pressure I felt to be dominant in class meant giving up a point was failure. On one occasion, I angrily wrote in my journal because I got swept by a high level, younger brown belt. I vowed never to let it happen again, (it did.)
Along with the anxiety and stress I was putting on myself to impress my coach and students, physical pain was starting to set in more by this time. When everything hurts, and you’ve gotta fight for your ego’s life everyday, it’s hard to have fun.
The day after breaking down to my wife and telling her I was done with Jiu Jitsu, I think I stopped caring. My training shot through the roof. I started rolling better than ever. My confidence had never been higher.
What made the difference was thinking about the people I cared about impressing. Would they love me less? Would they lose respect for me? Did I feel any differently about my students or teachers when they lost a match or fight? The answer was simple.
Once I felt secure that my identity, and the reason people cared about me wasn’t just my physical prowess, I realized I wouldn’t be lost if I lost. I wouldn’t die.
Today, training with my friends and students gives me more joy than ever before. I love competition and don’t get nervous anymore. I do these things now to enjoy myself, not to prove anything or impress anyone. To me, getting to this mental state has been the purpose of my training since I began.
Performance anxiety is normal. Fear is normal. It’s also irrational. Letting an imaginary conclusion dictate your state of mind will only let life pass you by. Remember this is what you love, and remind yourself to enjoy every second of it.