I have a vivid memory of sitting in trigonometry class on a Thursday afternoon in the fall of my junior year of high school, sick with fear. I mean this literally. The fear was centered in my stomach, agitating my recently eaten lunch with such violence that I felt queasy.
It wasn’t, I should say, trigonometry itself that nauseated me (I was pulling a solid A that semester), or the man teaching it—a bland and forbearing instructor who inspired little fear in even his worst studies. What scared me instead was that on Saturday I would compete in a cross country race with my fellow Bobcats of Oyster River High School, and it would hurt, and I had a deep aversion to that sort of hurt—so deep that I nearly threw up at my desk 48 hours ahead of the experience.
Things got worse from there. Having fallen in love with competitive running five years earlier, I left the sport eighteen months later, no longer able to face the discomfort it imposed. My passion for running had made me pretty good at it, but my fear ultimately overwhelmed that passion, turning me into a quitter.
The counterpoint to the pitiful adolescent memory I just shared is a second moment of pre-race anticipation, different in every way. I was forty-four years old now, minutes from starting of my first 50-mile trail ultramarathon, a race I knew would hurt far more—or at least far longer—than any of the 3.1-mile cross country races I ran in high school. Yet despite this knowledge I felt utterly calm as I waited the horn. Calm but also eager, like a man getting ready for a second date after a thrilling first date. Where I once feared the suffering of running hard through intense fatigue I now craved it, not because I had become some sort of masochist but because I had mastered my fear, turning my single greatest athletic weakness into my most outstanding strength. No sane person enjoys suffering, nor did I, but I took pride in embracing the suffering that is required to be the best runner one can be—the very same suffering I had once recoiled from.
I’ve written often about this transformation, and I do it again here for purpose of offering myself as living proof that it is possible to become less fearful as an athlete, and that becoming less fearful translates directly into better performance (I was in 13th place in a field of 525 participants when I took a wrong turn 1 mile from the finish line of that debut 50-miler—but that’s a story for another day). But how? Perhaps fear limits your own performance in and enjoyment of your sport, and you’d like someone who has left their fear behind to show you the way. I’m happy to oblige.
It was a three-step process—none of which steps, mind you, was consciously planned. I just bumbled my way through to a solution, recognizing the key steps in the process only in hindsight.
- Step One: Name your fear
Many athletes deny their fears, or avoid thinking about them, because they can’t handle the effect that acknowledging their fear would have on their self-image. This is understandable. I did downright cowardly things as a teenager to escape the discomfort of racing, including once faking an ankle injury during. But it wasn’t until I returned to competitive running in my late twenties after a ten-year hiatus that I admitted to myself that I was a coward and owned my fear of suffering, and by doing so I took a giant step toward overcoming this fear. After all, you can’t solve a problem you refuse to acknowledge as a problem, and with certain problems, acknowledgement makes an eventual solution almost inevitable.
- Step Two: Make overcoming fear an explicit goal
In athletes, fear usually relates to goals. There’s something we want to achieve, but achieving it isn’t easy, and the difficulty or uncertainty of our striving makes us afraid. Our focus remains on the goal, but fear pulls at us from the side. But not necessarily. Early in the second act of my life as a runner I made a choice to turn away from my competitive goals and focus squarely on fear, effectively subordinating my desire to win or improve to a determination to run fearlessly. When I raced, I rated my performance not by my finish time or place but by how much I suffered and how close I came to leaving everything I had on the racecourse.
This was a wise move on my part, I must say. Accepting the pain I feared as the very point of competing took me another step closer to becoming the athlete I wanted to be. It didn’t immediately cause me to be less afraid before and during races, but it made the eventual overcoming of my fear that much more inevitable.
- Step 3: Observe your fear
It is possible to feel fear without thinking about the fear you’re feeling. This is sometimes called animal fear, because nonhuman animals (as far as we know) aren’t capable of thinking about their fear. But humans are, and when we do step back from our fear to think about it we experience what is known as metacognitive fear. In both states—animal fear and metacognitive fear—we are afraid. Yet the two are different.
For starters, metacognitive fear is less absolute. In the animal state, fear is the only thing happening, but with metacognitive fear, there is something else happening, which is thinking. The metacognitive state also gives us more choices. For example, we can choose to accept our fear instead of denying or resisting it, saying to ourselves, “I’m scared. I don’t like it, but it’s what I’m feeling, and it’s only fear—I’ve been here before.”
The third step of my transformation entailed just this sort of mindfulness practice. I trained myself to leap from animal fear to metacognitive fear ever more quickly whenever I slipped back into worrying about the hurt I would experience in an upcoming race. In doing so I felt less and less ruled by fear, increasingly in command of it. By insisting on staring my fear straight in the eyes, I was telling it, in essence, “I might not be able to stop you from creeping inside my head, but what I can do is ensure there’s a blazing hot spotlight on you whenever you do.”
You might have noticed that the three steps to conquering fear I’ve just described are all about awareness. Naming your fear (step one) is an act of awareness. Setting an explicit goal to overcome your fear (step two) is also an act of awareness. And observing it (i.e., thinking about) your fear is too an act of awareness.
We tend to think of awareness as passive, hence as not the sort of thing that fixes a problem. But with fear this isn’t the case. If silver bullets kill werewolves, and wooden stakes kill vampires, exposure kills fear, insofar as fear can be killed. It’s no accident that exposure therapy is the preferred method of treating phobias of all kinds. Fear is a powerful force—perhaps the most powerful force in all of consciousness. We can’t possibly hope to defeat it by overpowering it. Instead we must rely on seemingly passive measures, in particular that of refusing to look away from it.
I’m no psychologist, but I don’t think it takes a psychologist to understand how the right kind of attention can disempower fear. A scared person often is too scared to even name their fear. But a scared person can nevertheless make a conscious choice to do so, acting less scared than they are. A scared person is often also too scared to make overcoming fear their number-one goal, ahead of that which it stands in the way of. Even so, a scared person can nevertheless choose to set this goal, again acting less scared than they are. And a scared person seldom has the wherewithal to step back from their fear when it manifests, but here too free will can subvert instinct. What would a less scared person do at these moments? Observe their fear! All it takes is an overt commitment for a scared person to do the same.
I conquered my fear of racing pain by doing things that an unafraid person would do, and were doable for me despite my fear because they were relatively passive, requiring nothing more than attention. Sounds easy, right? But in fact it wasn’t. It took many years of sustained attention to transform my greatest athletic weakness into my most outstanding strength.
Perhaps this is why many fear-limited athletes do essentially nothing to conquer their fear, instead just sort of hoping it goes away on its own. Show me an athlete who is limited by a certain fear at a given point and I will show an athlete who is limited by the same fear ten years later. Like I said, fear is powerful—too powerful for a lot of athletes to overcome, or to even try to overcome. I’ve shown you a simple, effective, and difficult process that you can use to overcome the fear that holds you back as an athlete. Will you?