Competition Stress – – Understanding and Harnessing this Powerful Force
By Mark V. Lonsdale
Stress is both a psychological and physiological condition that plagues not only athletes and soldiers but also every one of us in our every day lives. However, the added pressure of high-level competition seems to manifest these stress related problems in more dramatic and quantifiable ways. Even for the super-cool champion who appears to have iced-water running through his veins, stress is still a significant factor when entering any major competition where the stakes are high – for example, making the national or Olympic team.
Over the years I have trained with numerous athletes who have racked up excellent scores in training and demonstrated considerable skill in their field of endeavor. But then these same promising sportsmen were unable to reproduce that performance on the big day. I have also seen superbly trained and equipped combat personnel freeze when required to go in harms way. Lacking any injuries or other reasonable explanations, the probable cause of their failures can often be attributed to fear, match nerves and stress.
Fear, a close relative of stress, is an interesting phenomenon, often triggered by unfamiliar circumstances or a confrontation with unknown forces. For the athlete, this can equate to participation in a match format that is not familiar; against opponents of possibly superior skill; and in conditions that are not favorable. There can also be a more tangible fear of failure or not making the team.
To remove fear from the equation, it is best to add an element of realism to the training process so that training sessions directly reflect match conditions. To do this prior to a big tournament, the archer should practice shooting the entire match in the same format, under similar conditions and with the same time limits. In this manner, and by using the same equipment, the archer should be able to gauge his or her expected performance while developing a familiar “comfort zone” with that particular match format.
Now to address the effects of stress. Looking first at the more physical aspects, match stress and nerves can be manifested on several levels ranging from shaky hands or wobbly knees, all the way up to totally uncontrolled body shakes. In some extreme cases, the nervous individual can simply go catatonic as seen in the classic state of stage fright where the aspiring thespian forgets his or her lines and is frozen on the stage like a deer caught in headlights.
So to combat stress, we need to first understand what causes this very real physical reaction? We are all familiar with the physiology of the Flight or Fight syndrome found in the human condition. Under situations of extreme stress or fear, our primal survival instincts kick in and our body energizes itself to either run from danger or stand and fight. This is often manifested in the individual who exhibits almost super-human strength to save a loved one, or the quiet soldier who risks his own life in combat to save his squad or platoon.
This burst of adrenalin driven energy and strength can be of great value in some sports such as power-lifting or judo, but equally detrimental to athletes who participate in precision sports such as archery or target shooting. Where the weightlifter or fighter has a physical and dynamic outlet for all this adrenalin and energy, the archer and pistol shooter is trying to remain exceptionally calm and steady.
Archery and shooting are sports where whoever can move the least is often the winner. Unfortunately, when competition stress creates adrenalin and over stimulates the nervous system, the only outlet is shaking, which in turn creates a loss of confidence and even more stress. At times like these, probably the best remedy s to go for a run or get some vigorous exercise to burn off that nervous energy.
Since shaking and tremors are physical problems, as seen with accelerated heart rate and shallow breathing, they can often be reduced through physical means. A conditioned athlete will have superior cardio-pulmonary responses to stress in that his or her heart and respiratory rates will remain slower and blood pressure lower. Therefore, having an active and healthy life style is an important first step in stress reduction for everyone, not just athletes.
Another physical symptom of nerves is indigestion and the feeling that one will throw-up. This again is the body’s need to empty the stomach so that the blood being used for digestion can be better utilized to Fight or Flee from perceived danger. So obviously, heavy meals before competition are not recommended, particularly foods high in fat and protein which can be difficult to digest In addition, food or drinks that contain caffeine or excessive sugar are not going to help the situation.
However, not eating is also a problem causing lack of energy, weakness and loss of concentration. Reasonable amounts of bland foods and carbohydrates are excellent in the morning or prior to competition and may absorb some of the gastric acids and help settle the stomach. Several light snacks during the day, such as fruits, along with adequate hydration, can also have a beneficial effect supplying the energy required to concentrate and compete, without overloading the digestive system.
Now we get to the more complex psychological or mental aspects of stress control. As humans, we frequently play mind games with each other but the ones we play on ourselves can be the most destructive. For some reason, we persist in dwelling on and wrestling with the problems of everyday life without actively working to solve these problems. We hate our job, but we don’t quit. We are in a destructive relationship but we don’t leave. Our car is unreliable but we don’t get it fixed. We don’t shoot well in competition but we don’t practice either. You get the idea….
All of these problems will continue to occupy our conscious thoughts until we correct them. For the athlete, it is critical that both personal and professional lives are kept in order so as not to arrive at training or enter a competition with a myriad of mental distractions. From personal experience, I know that it is difficult for me to enjoy and benefit from a training session if I am neglecting work commitments. The solution is to first clear my desk and then go the range with a clear conscience.
There are however bigger problems in life such as personal tragedy, death or illness in the family, an ugly divorce, getting laid-off from work, etcetera. We often have no control over these, so must simply try to work through them. However, in many of these cases, having a healthy outlet and distraction such as physical training or archery can actually be cathartic (even though performance can be expected to suffer).
To be successful in competition, one needs to be not only a problem solver but also a positive thinker. This may sound overly simplified but it is true. You must think positively. As the old adage goes, “If you think you can, you probably will. If you think you can’t, you probably won’t. But in either case you are correct!”
The other quote that I like is the one from Rick McKinney’s book, The Simple Art of Winning, “We literally become what we think about most of the time.”
Along with a positive attitude, confidence is an important component of stress reduction. Not the arrogant confidence of the big ego, but the confidence that comes with having laid a solid foundation for the trials ahead.
Developing confidence begins with being well prepared. When you know that both you and your equipment are in the best possible condition, then you will enter the competition arena with a level of confidence that is unmatched by less prepared competitors.
The first step towards becoming better prepared is to remove any possible excuses that you may be able to conjure up for not performing well. These cover the full gambit from personal fitness and finances to equipment and training. The solution:
- Get into good physical condition for archery.
- Make sure you have the best equipment available.
- Ensure that your equipment is tuned and working at its optimum performance.
- Know how to set-up and tune your own bow and arrow combinations.
- Make the necessary time for training and travel.
- Work towards getting the financial resources need to train and compete at a national level.
- Get a coach who will not only help your form but boost your confidence.
- Enter each competition with a realistic expectation of where you will place.
- Only expect to win if you can consistently shoot championship scores in practice. And even then, do not focus on the winning, just the shooting.
- Think of every competition as a learning experience and do not fixate on the glory.
So the next subject is competition mindset. That delicate balance of confidence and focus that can so easily be disrupted by personal demons or the words or actions of others.
The novice competitor will often ask his or her coach, “What should I be thinking about when I am shooting?” Answer: “Exactly the same as what you think about when practicing by yourself.” Stance, breathing, draw, aim, release hand, follow-through. It is important to lockout all the other distractions and get into the moment.
Drawing on the zen philosophy again, launch each arrow like it is the only arrow. To quote from a kyudo text, “Whether one thousand arrows or ten thousand, each one must be new.” In other words, do not dwell on earlier good or bad shots, and do not think about the shots to come – only the one that is nocked, drawn and ready to release. Thinking about earlier bad shots will only erode confidence, and while it is acceptable to draw confidence from a good series or end, this should not give a false confidence in future performance. Stay focused and stay in the moment.
As stated earlier in this article, the mind games that we play with our selves can be extremely destructive. One of these is self-imposed pressure. We put pressure on ourselves to shoot better, to score higher, to impress others, to win and to make the team. Unfortunately, performance in precision shooting sports such as archery generally deteriorates the harder we try. This is where one must differentiate between “trying” and “focusing.” When we try harder to do something, we are focusing on the outcome and not the act. Without concentrating on the act, performance deteriorates which continues to create stress. This in turn makes us try harder, only resulting in additional loss in points and more stress. A vicious cycle that must be interrupted by stepping back from the abyss, taking a deep breath, relaxing and returning focus to the act of shooting not the hope of winning.
Anyone who is driven to win at a national or international level is probably very motivated, bordering on being an over-achiever. It takes confidence and determination to win, but too much determination, unsupported by a structured and comprehensive training program, can simply be manifested as destructive stress.
The important aspect of harnessing this determination is not to set unrealistic goals or make unattainable claims. To boastfully claim that one will win a specific tournament, only puts the proverbial “monkey on his back” and creates additional stress. Remember that everyone likes to see a braggart fall flat on his face, just as the crowd likes to see a quiet and humble man or woman win gold.
At the risk of contradicting myself, it is however important to have confidence that you can win in a specific tournament. This confidence should be derived from hard training and knowing that you have been consistently shooting scores that are capable of winning this match. If you cannot shoot winning scores in practice, then it is unreasonable to expect to shoot winning scores under match pressure. It is then better to go and just shoot the best you can and enjoy the experience. By removing the stress of “having to win”, you may in fact shoot the best score you have ever shot and actually win.
Lastly, it is important to surround yourself with equally positive thinking friends and training partners. A healthy support network of non-judgmental friends and family, who will continue to love and support you whether you win or lose, can be a major asset to a competition shooter. Just as they can share the joy of your successes, they will be equally supportive and encouraging during the slumps and all too frustrating training plateaus. But when its all said and done, it is your own mindset and attitude that will make or break you as a competitor. So think positive, stay focused, train with a purpose, and the golds will take care of themselves.