Hello and welcome back to Brain in the Game. Brain in the Game is a podcast that's been specifically designed for athletes, coaches, and parents who are looking to do their sport just that little bit smarter. And I'm your host, Dave Diggle.
In this Episode 93, we're going to look at why athletes get anxious and what we can do to better manage that. So before we get into this episode, it's important that we understand that getting nervous about competitions, about performance is incredibly normal. And we get nervous because it's important to us. And I'll often say to athletes, just because you're nervous doesn't mean you're not capable. It just means it's important to you. So we should embrace that. We should enjoy the fact that this is important. We're going to get nervous. We want to do our best. Then that's okay. It's what we do with the nerves that makes a difference between an athlete who can perform and an athlete who gets completely derailed on competition day.
We also want to think about athletes who get nervous when it comes to specific skills, whether that's a really challenging skill or a skill that they've done multiple times, but they have to perform it.
So humans are a pack of really nervous creatures, often. And one of our biggest fears is the fear of the unknown. And because we have a fear of the unknown, what our brain does is we create this imagination. You've probably heard me talk before about the fact that we believe humans are the only animal that has an active imagination. Which means we can create a potential outcome in our brain of what could happen, and then build a strategy to manage that if it does actually happen. So the fact that we have an imagination is a really good thing. It's one of the reasons why we can create so many things that have never been created before. We can imagine what they look like, we can imagine some of the challenges, and we can imagine some of the solutions to build, to create, to perform those things. So our imagination is a gift. It's a great thing for us as a species to have.
It can also be incredibly challenging because our imagination can go absolutely wild and create the most worst-case scenarios in our brain in an effort to protect us. Our brain is designed to protect us. That's its primary job. It's got lots of things it does, but its primary job is to keep us alive. So if it deems the fact of creating this worst-case scenario, the best, smartest thing to do, then that's what it's going to do.
Our imagination, our fear of the unknown, is part and parcel of the reasons why we get very, very nervous when we're going to perform and do things, particularly if it is a competition, or if it's a trial for selection, or it's something that we really value. Once we value it, then we fear losing it, or we fear making mistakes, or we fear embarrassing ourselves, or not being ready and being prepared enough. All of these things, if you're an elite athlete, would sound incredibly familiar to you because that's what most of us feel when we come to competitions. All of those different emotions will come bubbling up.
So knowing the fact that it's normal, knowing the fact that humans are pack animals, so we want to look good in front of our peers, in front of the rest of the pack, knowing that we value good performance and being higher up in our social pecking order rather than being at the bottom. All of these things compound to go towards why we get really nervous when we compete.
But there's a deeper reason why we get really, really nervous, even when we have done all the preparation, when we've ticked all the boxes, when we think we're ready to go. And that is our dopamine and cortisol partnership that goes on inside our brain. Now, I'm going to get a little nerdy for a second, and we're going to talk about dopamine, cortisol, and serotonin. And these three chemicals that go on in our brain, two of them are neurotransmitters, and one of them is a hormone, dictate a lot of what we do as performers and how we perform. So you've probably heard me in the past talk about dopamine like a big, hairy gorilla. I think in a couple of episodes ago, we talked about that big, hairy dopamine gorilla who rocks up and goes, Yeah, that was great. I want to do it again. I want to do it again. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It's our feel-good pleasure thing. It's part of our addiction cycle. But because it rocks up, it makes us feel really good, but it doesn't stick around. And it doesn't stick around because it doesn't focus on the 'how' it felt good. It just focuses on that feeling good.
Every time we get stimulated, dopamine gets released. And when dopamine gets released, what it does, it wants stimulation even more. It wants that big hit of that dopamine hit of, 'That's fantastic. I want it!'
Our fear of fight, flight, or freeze comes from our cortisol release. It's a hormone that gets released into our body to prepare us for combat, or to prepare us for running, or to make us just be that deer in the headlights when we stand there and go, 'I don't know what to do.' So it's part of our survival mechanism. And it comes with our imagination too, because if we are scared of something and we think, 'This could end up really, really bad. I can imagine what could go wrong.' Our cortisol gets dumped into our body, and our body primes ready to kick in whatever survival mechanism it deems is the right thing to do.
And we do have a predisposition to a certain style of reaction to that. If you're an aggressive fighter, then you will instinctively fight your way out of whatever stimulation that is, that fear that comes that way.
If you're a flight person, then your natural instant reaction is to take on your heels and get out of there. Then that's a good strategy to have because you don't have to put yourself in any more combat-based threat.
Or if you're a freeze, the person that just stands there and freezes in that sense of fear moment, then I've got to be honest with you, I don't know what the benefit of that is, but maybe just allowing that threat to go past you. Again, if we run, it might chase us. If we fight it, it's definitely going to fight us. So maybe if we freeze, it's just going to see us as a non threat and go past us. So maybe that's actually the smartest one to be. I don't know. I know. That's certainly not me.
And what an interesting byproduct to that is when we're in that high cortisol moment, that fight, flight or freeze mechanism, our brain reallocates resources. So it will move the blood away from our brain and towards our heart and our peripherals, our arms and our legs, so that if we do need to fight or run, then it's got oxygenated blood in there.
It switches off our immune system because let's face it, if we're being chased across the Savannah, we're not worrying about bugs, we're worrying about the thing with the big teeth that's going to bite into us. So there's no necessity to have an immune system. And just on the side of that, that's why when we have high states of anxiety in preparation for a competition, we often get sick because our immune system has been compromised, because our brain has reallocated those resources to other areas of what it deems is most important. So if you're an athlete and just before a competition or normally just after a competition, you go down with the flu or you pick up a local bug that's going around, that's the reason. It's because you've got high cortisol in your body. You're in that fight, flight or freeze mode. And yeah, that's what's happening to your body: your brain has reallocated resources away from your immune system. It's just an interesting thing when athletes get that. So the relationship between our big, hairy dopamine gorilla and our cortisol, which is our survival mechanism, along with our imagination, is what creates a performance anxiety.
Because if we think about it, we've been stimulated where we've got this hairy dopamine gorilla saying, 'Yeah, I want to be able to perform a certain way.' We've got our imagination that's stepped in and gone, 'But what if it goes wrong? What if I can't? What if I'm not good enough?' Which has triggered our cortisol release of fight, flight, or freeze. And all of a sudden it's a perfect storm for us to go, 'This could go really wrong.'
When we talk about creating performance momentum in the good direction, we get performance momentum in a bad direction too. This negative direction can come from that little trifecta of dopamine, imagination, and cortisol, creating high anxiety. So as an athlete, if you find yourself really, really anxious before skills or performance, or competition, or selection, then the reality is dopamine, we can't do a lot about. It's going to rock up. It's going to be there. If we're going to have a party, that dopamine gorilla is always going to be there. There's nothing we can do to not invite the dopamine gorilla.
Our imagination is part of our survival mechanism. We want to create those potential outcomes because that helps us drive forward of that positive momentum too. So we don't want to get rid of that either.
Our cortisol is designed to protect us. So if there's anything that we need to do to get control of our anxiety, our performance anxiety, it's to dampen down the cortisol release. And the way we do that is with serotonin. So serotonin is also a neurotransmitter, and it's a feel-good release inside our body that we naturally produce. So when we're looking at this image, if you're watching us on YouTube, I've got a picture of the big dopamine gorilla standing there. We've got the cortisol, which I've used as a cactus in the desert with the dopamine gorilla. And the reason reason I've used this cactus is because in any situation, in any environment, our cortisol release is really robust. It's always going to be there. It doesn't need looking after. It doesn't need watering. It doesn't need taking care of. It's designed to protect us. It's going to rock up. It's going to be robust. Yet our serotonin, and what I've used in this picture here is a lemon tree, also in the desert, but it takes a lot of care and nurture and attention. Because if we stop nurturing and watering and taking care of that serotonin lemon tree that I've got here, it will dry up, it will shrivel up really, really quick, and we will stop producing that serotonin. And the dopamine and the cortisol will take over control again.
When we have the serotonin being released, then what it does is it dampens down that cortisol release. So we get better balance. We're always going to have cortisol there. We want to keep it there to keep us alive and survive. It also, as a side here, it gets us out of bed in the morning. It's the thing that gets released, it gets us bouncing out of bed in the morning to go, 'I'm ready to go.' Because if you think about it this way, as a human, when we don't have the biggest teeth, we're not the fastest runner, we're certainly not the strongest out there. So we are the most vulnerable as a species when we're asleep. So getting up and getting the weight and getting alert first thing in the morning when we've done all our recovery, when we've done all our sleeping, makes sense, doesn't it? So our brain will dump our body full of that cortisol, bounce us out of bed and go, 'Right, I'm really alert, I'm ready to go.' Unless you're a teenager and getting you out of bed in the morning is really hard. But the reality is, cortisol is a necessary getting you out of bed in the morning thing.
So serotonin. How do we release serotonin? The greatest way to release serotonin in a controlled manner to reduce our cortisol is recognition and reward. When you turn around and you say to yourself, 'Yeah, that was really good. I've done that really well today.' Your brain will release that serotonin. Now, don't forget that dopamine gorilla is always there. It's always the first one to the party. And it's a magnifier. And if it's going to magnify the cortisol, it's going to magnify the serotonin, which is what we want. So we're going to recognise, we're going to reward, we're going to release that serotonin. That dopamine gorilla is going to go, 'Yeah, this is great.' And it's going to partner up with the serotonin. And it's going to leave that cortisol to the side a little bit and don't pay as much attention. So constant feeding of that recognition and that reward is going to help us maintain in a tough environment, in a high performance environment, it's going to maintain that serotonin tree that we're working on. It's going to make good lemonade out of that lemon.
So I've used this picture multiple times. If you're just listening to this on the podcast, the picture is that dopamine gorilla, the cortisol cactus, and the serotonin lemon tree. We want to make sure that all of these components are equally well looked after and used and optimised for what they're designed for. If you're not recognising and rewarding, then you're not releasing serotonin, which means that cortisol and that dopamine relationship is going to outperform that dopamine and serotonin relationship.
If you're nervous before a competition, the likelihood is you're not feeding the positives. You're thinking about the worst case scenario. Your imagination is going, 'What if I don't perform? What if I'm not good enough? What if I haven't done enough?' So you go and overtrain, and then you start feeling fatigued and go, 'Oh, I'm tired. I'm not fit enough, I can't do this.' So you can probably see the cycle that you've probably fed yourself into. The key thing in recognising the serotonin release, that recognition and that reward process, that's why we promote journaling. If you're writing down, This is what I've done today, this was my objective, this is what I hit, I done a really good job at that. Right, what I need to do tomorrow is focus on this, this, this and this to continue to improve, build that momentum. You're going to start releasing that serotonin.
So you hear me talk a lot about JOBV as part of our non-negotiable preparation process. That's:
Journaling: collecting that data so we can recognise and reward.
Objective: setting those objectives, making sure that we've got something to recognise and reward. It's really clear and concise for us.
We talk about Bounce: which is a stimulation, that's going to stimulate both the left and right hemisphere of your brain. So when you go and perform, you're looking and you're hungry for that success.
And we've got Visualisation: which allows us to know exactly what success looks like. It's got a blueprint of success.
So this release of serotonin and dopamine and cortisol and our imagination, it's a party that's going on inside our head. And if we're not looking out for that party, if we're not managing that party, it's a likelihood of that party is going to get out of control and get way off track.
So I hope you got a lot from this episode of Brain in the Game. I hope you really can see where your performance anxieties come from. If you listen to your language patterns, if you are collecting the data and writing down in your journal, and you can see there's a lot of focus on negativity, then you're probably not paying much attention to that recognition and reward process.
Until our next episode of Brain in the Game, train smart and enjoy the ride. My name's Dave Diggle. I'll see you there.