Altering Your Chemistry
I’m nervous if I’m in a big competition, but I tell myself that’s exactly what I want to feel. I tell myself it’s an excited nervousness.
Olympic Champion Archer Jay Barrs
Much of this blog is about the mind- body chemicals of athletes and how their hormones work for and against them, depending on their mental and emotional attitudes. In this chapter, we’ll look at one of the most dramatic issues: How they alter their mindset and consequently their chemical makeup in a split second to make all the difference between winning and losing.
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When they feel doubt, distraction or nervousness during competition, the great ones transform the situation into a positive, says psychologist Stephen Ungerleider. Great athletes such as tennis star Steffi Graf Olympic swimmer and multiple gold medal winner Janet Evans, and pole vaulter Sergei Bubka always carry a visual image, a cognitive cue, and a source of extra energy, Ungerleider says. They know that they can call up an image, trigger a word or phrase and get that extra breath when they need it. These are the same athletes who convert negative experiences such as anger, frustration, and aggression to positive moments of arousal with extra oxygen and energy at the finish. These are the winners! With every emotion, there is a chemical reaction that responds physiologically, he says.
Biochemists and neurobiologists agree with him. They say that when an athlete is feeling too nervous or too anxious, it likely means that too much adrenaline or cortisol is pumping through his system. Adrenaline and cortisol tend to be pumped out in large portions when the athlete feels fear. If a body becomes flooded with it, tension is not far away and that usually means a seizure of athletic skills. Adrenaline tends to be useful more as a defensive hormone. The trick, scientists say, is to change the body chemistry to a blend of more pro-active hormones, perhaps a combination of adrenaline and noradrenaline, as well as chemical neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and others, which are more aggressive.
While it’s next to impossible to study these game day responses in a laboratory, a number of biochemists, athletes, sport psychologists and coaches interviewed for this blog believe an athlete can change the body chemistry by turning his feelings of anxiety or fear to other feelings excitement, challenge, or even anger. But then those feelings of excitement, challenge, or anger must be immediately channeled dispassionately into the skill or routine the athlete is performing. The method that athletes use for this quick switch differs from person to person some intently focus on the act, others completely relax, while others go into the no-think mode. In any event, the purpose is to let the nervous energy be channeled into the skill, not to aim it at the opponent.
Many psychologists believe that anxiety is a form of fear. So, for now, let’s refer to the feeling of anxiety as fear. And let’s review their advice and some of the variations: fear to challenge to skill; fear to excitement to skill; or fear to anger to dispassionate skill. So, theoretically, in hormonal terms that could mean: adrenaline (fear) to noradrenaline (anger) to dopamine and other hormones.