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by Hazel Gale

Summer 2014

How to Utilise Your Fear

It’s the morning of my national Amateur Boxing Association (ABA) final. I’m hidden away in the bowels of my building, doing something we fighters call “skipping off”. It refers to exercising away weight, and, in my case involves wearing three layers of clothing and a bin bag, trying to sweat out that final kilo before my forthcoming official weigh-in. I have tape protecting my recently broken wrist. My right hamstring is slightly torn. I’ve lost almost 5kg over the past two weeks due to having eaten barely any solid food, yet my mind is eerily worry-free.

It wasn’t always this way before a competition however. Far from it, in fact – previously, in the run-up to a big fight, I would find myself catastrophising with endless, unhelpful questions: “What if my opponent is stronger than me? What if she’s fitter? And what if I get knocked down, in front of everyone?”

Suffice to say that I used to suffer from crippling nerves. What’s more, they would start weeks before the bout. The effects were all-pervasive too as, with each of these negative thoughts, my mind would be torn away from the present moment and propelled into a horrific counterfactual future, which would then cause my body to respond as if it were all happening in the here and now.

Three weeks of that would be enough to exhaust anyone, but no matter how much I tried to tell myself not to worry, I couldn’t stop my mind from doing its (self-defeating) thing. And never was this more the case, than when I should have been doing something else – something more useful – like sleeping.

Nowadays, there are various mental tuning techniques that I use to get myself psychologically ready for a bout. These help me avoid the inevitable downward spiral caused by anxiety, and they may well help you. However, because every individual mind works differently, there may be other techniques you can incorporate to get the maximum positive effect. What’s important is to get to know one’s own individual mental processes.

What type of pattern does your mind follow when you’re doing your version of nervous?

“Doing” is a key word here because what I’m proposing is a process of expanding your self-awareness. Thus, it should begin with the essential step of accepting anxiety as something we create, not something that’s thrust upon us, no matter how much it can feel that way at times. In short, we have to take responsibility for our anxiety and how it manifests. Because, whatever your anxiety-producing processes are, once you can identify them, I believe they can be harnessed.

The thoughts that used to hurt and harm you, can now be used, in completely the opposite way, to create a positive mindset.

For example, one of the things I used to do before a fight was to (sometimes obsessively) research my opponent. I thought the more knowledge I had, the better equipped I’d be. To some extent this is true. Yet it rarely decreased my levels of anxiety because I tended to focus in on one attribute possessed by my opponent, and convince myself that it meant they were unbeatable. I tried to stop this by refusing to research anyone but invariably I’d be told something, or accidentally stumble across a bit of information somewhere and then…. hey presto, I was back in the same mindset: with an undefeatable opponent to lose all-important hours of sleep over.

Now, I chose instead to research my opponent just enough to give me one little bit of information that I could use for my benefit. This little gem would function as a confidence-booster, rather than a piece of evidence for my ensuing demise. For example, where once I might have thought: “she’s enormous, she’s going to kill me” I’d now change that to: “she’s a big lump, she’s going to be slower than me…” There was always something I could do to turn things around, if I really wanted to. But, that’s just me and my brain. The question is, what exactly works for yours?

Here I’d like to introduce what’s known as “preferred representational systems” in Neuro- Linguistic Programming (NLP). This is a method of categorising the different ways in which people think by focusing on what exactly our thoughts are made up of. There are four different preferred representational systems: Visual (primarily thinking in images); Auditory (placing emphasis on sounds); Kinaesthetic (on physical feelings/emotions); and Auditory digital (where the person is prone to use self-talk or logic to rationalise a situation). We’ll all use all of these means to think but most people will tend to favour one over the others.

Knowing your preferred representational system can help you to understand what type of information is likely to affect you the most at any time. But, just to make things more complicated, it’s often the case that your mind will place a changeable emphasis on different modalities (senses) in different situations, so it’s perhaps most important in this context to specifically define which of these mental ‘media’ play the biggest part in your anxiety.

It’s easier to do than it sounds: just imagine yourself in a moment of anxiety and ask yourself how you know that you’re nervous. Almost certainly there will be some level of physical feeling – that is your body responding to a perceived threat by producing adrenaline – but what is it specifically that stimulates that reaction? Do you see images in your mind (visual)? Is it an imagined sound that makes you most uncomfortable (auditory)? Do you find yourself talking to yourself about your short-fallings perhaps (auditory digital)? Or, is it just a feeling (kinaesthetic)? It’s likely to be a combination of these of course, but which is most prominent?

Auditory Digital (Ad):This one is a big deal for me because my preferred representational system is Ad (with visual and auditory following closely behind so I do utilise those modalities as well as you’ll see). Because of the strong digital element, things must make sense to me (or I’ll tend to disregard them completely). It’s probably my penchant for the logical that explains the effectiveness of my above example. By finding something that means I can beat my opponent: or by creating an if… then… equation that suggests my superiority, I am able to trick my brain into a state of positive anticipation.

Visual: If it’s images that seem to be affecting you the most then one of your options is to create positive imagery. This could be as simple as repeatedly imagining yourself having won your event, or you could really utilise the unconscious mind’s vastly superior understanding of the big picture by developing metaphorical imagery for your success.

Example: Two years ago I went up a weight category to box a girl who was a good few centimetres taller than me. I knew I needed to be aggressive because her superior reach would make it difficult for me to match her in a technical bout. A few weeks before the fight I asked myself a series of questions from David Grove’s Clean Language system to develop an appropriate metaphor to focus my mind on this objective. It went something like this:

Q: “What do I want to happen?”
A: “I want to win the fight by always coming forward, and by being strong and aggressive”. Q: “That’s ‘strong and aggressive’ like what?”
A: “Like a lion hunting its prey”.

This gave me the basis for a metaphor that represented my desired outcome. I developed this by applying more Grovian questions and coming up with a loaded mental image of this lion taking its prey apart.

On the evening of the bout, I visualised my lion and prey movie in the ring itself. When I stepped through the ropes I imagined becoming that lion. That night I won by technical knockout in the second round. Perhaps most interestingly, my coach said to me afterwards (with absolutely no prior knowledge of my imagery processes): “That’s the best I’ve ever seen you box. You were like a lion stalking its prey”. True story!

Auditory: One of my clients would hear a little voice in his head that said “you can’t do this”. When he heard this voice he would physically shrink into himself and become small, weak and very insecure. Together we analysed this voice, not by thinking about what it meant, but by discerning how he heard it: was it loud or soft; high or low pitched; inside or outside his head? One by one we tried altering these variables to see if they made a difference to the way the voice made him feel. These variables are called “sub modalities” in NLP and they’re like a mental coding system that determines our emotional response to a thought or feeling. In the end, we discovered that by moving that voice from the left to the right side of his head, and by raising its pitch he could make it seem “silly and inconsequential”. All he had to do from then on was consciously alter the voice in this way to short circuit the old problem loop and change the effect.

Kinaesthetic:Here’s something we can all benefit from greatly, especially those of us who relate to the world primarily through a bodily understanding of our environment. We’ve known for some time that our body language expresses our mood, but now we understand that this is a two-way street. What this means is that you can communicate to your mind about how you’d like it to be thinking/feeling by physically adopting the posture associated with your desired state.

Amy Cuddy’s brilliant study on this two-way conversation between psyche and soma has shown that just two minutes spent in a dominant pose can raise your testosterone levels by 20%.

Interestingly, this also makes you more likely to anticipate success, as well as making you more aggressive (predictably). Simultaneously, by embodying dominance in this way, you can reduce your levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 25%, making you calmer and better able to handle pressure. To put a cherry on this cake – especially if you’re involved in a one-on-one sport like boxing or tennis – when one person assumes a dominant pose, their opponent or interlocutor will tend to assume a submissive one (which has exactly the opposite effect).

Dominant poses include anything open – anything that makes you bigger. A classic example would be standing with your legs apart and your arms stretched out in a star shape (but this can look a little odd when integrated into your warm up…). What I tend to do is walk around for two minutes standing tall, with my chest puffed out, my hands on top of my head and my elbows out wide. On the day of my ABA final, this is exactly what I was doing at the moment my coach told me it was time to make our way to the ring.

As we entered the arena I brought to mind my metaphor for this particular bout – a train – that was born out of the words “foregone conclusion”. Over the preceding weeks I had chosen to focus on the knowledge that my opponent was a couple of fights short of me in experience. This I made into the equivalence that meant I was in a position of advantage (thus satisfying my auditory digital mind). One of the things that stood out about this imagery was the sound of a train picking up speed, which I heard in my mind as we walked through the noisy crowd.

At the moment before a fight, everything goes quiet in my mind – like a thick blanket has been thrown over the rest of the world. Then there’s this awesome sense of being utterly alone. I imagine it might be similar to the feeling you’d get when you’re dying (although it’s not altogether unpleasant). All of my training partners; my cornermen; the audience; just seem to fade into insignificance. What’s left is just me and the challenge that stands before me. On the day of the final I used this moment of pure, uninterrupted focus to visualise my metaphorical locomotive steaming out of my corner and smashing through hers. It was at this point that I knew I was ready.

Regardless of my broken physical state; regardless of all the obstacles I’d had to overcome in my prep; while I boxed that day – even during the more difficult moments – I was always aware of an underlying foundation of certainty. The result – my win – really did feel as though it was a foregone conclusion.