Facing the Fear

“True courage is not the absence of fear—but the willingness to proceed in spite of it.” Unknown
Driving through New York City late one night, I happened upon a radio segment whose host was interviewing a psychologist about the traumatic effects of surviving a high-magnitude earthquake.  Within his practice, he had witnessed the personal havoc that such an experience wrought on sensible, educated, previously healthfully-functioning individuals.  For instance, many of his patients were unable to shower, brush their teeth, or leave their house as they had associated those behaviors with the event.  The fears, noted the psychologist, were irrational and detracted from their ability to function normally.

But rather than encourage his patients to avoid or escape the fear, the psychologist based his work around helping them develop the courage to confront it.  Can’t take a shower anymore?  Well, you have to.  Finding it impossible to get in your car?  It’s got to be done; you can’t live like this.  In response to such firm commands and ‘courage training,’ nearly 80% of his patients made noticeable progress and healthy adjustments back into society.

Athletes, too, adopt irrational, performance-diminishing fears in response to their own “traumas.”  An athlete’s fear itself – of looking foolish or inadequate, of disappointing teammates or coaches, of particular opponents, of failing or succeeding – may not be particularly debilitating.  Instead, his response to the fear is what gets in the way of optimal performance.  Committed athletes, most of whom are highly solution-focused, may opt to escape from situations that cause or exacerbate fear.  The baseball player who is hitless on the season against that night’s starting pitcher may decide to “lay low” before the game and not watch tape or mentally rehearse his at-bats, as doing so may bring up familiar feelings of fear and incompetence.  The hockey player, upon taking the ice for his shift, may secretly wish for the puck not to be passed to him, as having the puck may aggravate his long-standing fear of doing something reckless with it.

Being avoidance-focused is not being solution-focused.  One must deal with a difficult situation in order to be classified as solution-focused.  And the only direct way to address fear is by developing the courage to confront it, and the trust that directly confronting it will produce favorable results over time.

This will take some discomfort.  But to realize our full potential, we’ve all got to be comfortable being uncomfortable.  Start with a firm command…

3 Responses to “Facing the Fear”

  1. 1 Mason May 5, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Truth! I’m a strong believer that confronting fears is not only the most worthwhile thing in competition, but it’s the most fun/interesting when the mindset is right. It can be harder to turn the corner in sports though than life, right? I mean you don’t “have to” confront a sports fear in the same way that you have to take a shower. How do you get an athlete to flip the switch?

    • 2 gchertok May 5, 2011 at 10:24 am

      Thanks Mason! Glad you agree. At least with many of my clients, they develop a strong sense of motivation when our work directs them to this clarification: “When I shy away from an experience in life/sport, it leads to (certain feelings, behaviors, results). When I confront an experience” – and there are always life or sport experiences from which an athlete can extract here – “and exemplify courage, it leads to (other feelings, behaviors, results).” And the motivation here typically is intrinsic in nature: they’re pumped to take on the challenge as “confronting the fear” is now clearly seen as a way to maximize fulfillment in the activity. Commands or suggestions on my end are often fruitless; once the athlete sees that there really is “another way” to go about approaching their sport, that’s when the switch is flipped.

  2. 3 Mason May 5, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Fair enough, Greg. I like that presentation of the problem.

    Coincidentally, I posted some tangential thoughts on my blog last yesterday, and I followed up today after reading your piece. I linked your post because of relevance.

    Run to the roar!


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