Taming your Inner Demon

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We all have an inner critic. Its impact varies for each of us, depending on its volume and assertiveness. Having awareness of negative thought patterns during any high-performance endeavour enables us to build strategies to mitigate their effects. That you are susceptible to negative thoughts simply means you’re human; it’s how you manage them that makes the difference.

Recently, I did a coaching session with a group of high-performance rowers where we were able to listen for this internal critic and build strategies for managing it when under stress. Whilst these athletes are dealing with extreme physical stress, there is commonality in how to deal with stress in high-performance work situations.

During this session, the athletes were to complete training pieces on the indoor rowing machine, in preparation for an upcoming national team selection 2000-metre rowing test. For those unfamiliar with rowing, and more particularly, the rowing machine, sprinting for 2000m over 6 minutes can be the stuff of nightmares. The physical demands are quite extreme and consequently, the mind can be either a helpful ally or a powerful nemesis.

Prior to their training session, I asked the group to observe their internal dialogue during their first training piece. As the piece was to be at high intensity, those athletes with a vocal inner critic would likely hear negative self-talk at some point after they began to experience fatigue.

In line with expectation, several athletes described their internal dialogue, which was often common in its nature and tone. Comments such as, “I’ve stuffed it, I’ve gone too hard too early”, or “I’m not going to be able to hold this tempo”, were among them. The earlier the negative thoughts arose, the harder it became to hold the tempo for the whole piece.

So how do you manage these inner voices when under stress?

While the strategies will differ depending on the individual and the activity they are engaging in, some simple rules of thumb can be helpful.

Manage your breathing. Breathe deeply and intentionally. This will slow your heart rate and help your physiology deal with the upcoming demands. In the case of the rowers, deep and controlled breathing before they commence the first piece.

Re-frame expectations such that you’re not adding unnecessary stress to the situation. With the rowers, break down the 6-minute test into smaller chunks. It’s only the last 2 minutes where fatigue is likely to be an issue, so finding technical points to focus on in the first 4 minutes, rather than focusing heavily on physicality, makes it seem manageable.

How you feel can be greatly influenced by what you think. Retraining your mind to focus on more positive thoughts and actions will reduce or at least delay the effects of stress. For the athletes, by having a positive set of language points to focus their internal dialogue through the first 4 minutes of the piece will delay their concerns about fatigue.

Know your triggers. Regardless of our level of self-awareness training, most of us still get triggered and have repeating thought patterns that are obstacles to our performance. As a rower, knowing you’re likely to think “I’ve stuffed it, I’ve gone too hard too early” at some point during the race, having an anchoring phrase or point of focus can interrupt a negative thought loop. Rowing, as in many activities in life, requires momentum. If you allow negativity to hold you for more than 3 strokes, it’s very hard to regain momentum.

While these simple strategies are useful “on-field” tools that help manage stress while executing, the biggest benefits accrue through preparation. Training your mind to manage future uncertainty reduces performance anxiety and allows you to enter an optimal mental state for high performance on-demand.


Photo by Zachary DeBottis: https://www.pexels.com/photo/silhuoette-of-a-person-2953863/