Effective Training Strategies Part 2: Challenge vs Threat

Last week I wrote about the importance of acknowledging the process in training and the journey towards your goals and desired outcomes.

Part 2 in this series of blog posts concerns our perceptions towards challenges and how that affects our performance.

This topic is fascinating to me, the idea that how we think affects how our body reacts is amazing and that in changing our thought patterns, changing how we view situations we can change not only how we feel emotionally and mentally in a given circumstance but how our bodies feel and perform.

A Challenge vs A Threat

In 'Top Dog', Ashley Merriman refers to two types of situations, real or perceived, experienced by an individual.  The first being a Challenge (something you think you can overcome/be successful at, asking yourself questions such as Can I do it? Am I right?) and the second being a Threat (A situation where you believe there is no chance you can do it, you feel ill equipped, under prepared, less skilful, fear loss and fear failure).  

In life these situations could be real, think of encounter with a deadly animal or in a sporting context the perception of these situations is a result of ones thoughts and ideas.

The real life situation and our perceptions however, have the exact same physiological effects.

In a challenged state the blood vessels expand, the lungs inflate, the levels of oxygen increase and the body will burn stored glucose.  The body will provide just the right amount of adrenalin to perform.  Psychologically, your singular motivation is to go at that thing that is challenging you and overcome it. You are confident that you have the capabilities to surmount the challenging situation.

In a threatened state the blood vessels constrict to protect vital organs, the lungs tighten and glucose is burnt form the blood stream for a burst of energy.  The body will begin to produce cortisol.  Psychologically you want to flee from the threat and your confidence plummets.

What does this mean for the Athlete/Sports Person?

In a sporting context research has shown that where an individual perceives a challenge, their response was to cope with the challenge, their bodies provided enough energy to perform and execute required skills.  In contrast where a threat is perceived, individuals began to shut down after an initial burst of energy.

In the picture above, Muhammad Ali sought out to challenge Joe Fraiser and to reclaim his world title, Muhammad Ali saw this as a challenge, he wanted to prove he was the ultimate champion.  Joe Fraiser on the other hand had everything to lose, he was threatened by Muhammad Ali reclaiming the title, he was afraid of losing the fight and his status.  Muhammad Ali was of course victorious, his body lasted to fight well after Joe Fraiser began to shut down.

In that case both Muhammad Ali and Joe Fraiser were well trained, well prepared and capable of giving a good fight, what can cause a win or a loss however can boil down to thoughts, attitudes and how that affects your body.

In the case of climbing, a threat can be perceived in any number of situations e.g. competitions, on a red point attempt, climbing in front of peers, climbing at a new location.  If a threat is perceived, if one begins to feel anxious or afraid, the individual will enter into a threatened state and the body will respond, resulting in a shaky performance, perhaps rushed and eventually burn out.

'Look at it like this. Two athletes, Athlete A and Athlete B, are of equal ability and equally well prepared for an upcoming competition. Upon arrival at event, they encounter really bad weather conditions. Athlete A sees the conditions and thinks “This is awful. I hate these conditions. How am I going to perform well today.” In contrast, Athlete B thinks, “These are tough conditions, but I’ve been training under these conditions and everyone has them anyway. I’m going to crush it!” Clearly, Athlete A sees the race as a threat, while Athlete B sees it as a challenge. Who do you think will have a better race? Athlete B, obviously.' (The cluttered mind uncluttered, by Jim Taylor, Ph.D.)

Changing the thought Processes

Ultimately then to ensure that you get the best performance from your body the thought processes must be changed.  Where an individual can begin to see situations now as challenges where previously they may have felt threatening.

A stepping stone to this is actually changing your reaction to bodily responses.  In a new situation such as a competition the hear rate may begin to rise, you may have sweaty palms, feel an increase in body temperature etc.  If you can interpret this and report this as 'Excitement' even telling others that you feel excited, studies have shown this has a much more positive effect on the body, in contrast those who express 'nervousness' have shown to exhibit negative physiological response and reduce capacity to perform.

So this is interesting, where all individuals feel the same bodily responses initially, its the interpretation and the eventual ability to deal with those responses that differs athletes...think of the saying 'he/she deals very well under pressure', as Merriman states, 'The real distinction between professionals and amateurs is their response to anxiety.'

What to do next:

So in your training how can you develop your attitude towards challenge?

1) In training notice your thoughts and responses to new situations-maybe in climbing its a new type of movement e.g. Dyno's, maybe its climbing with a new person, perhaps a stronger peer. become aware of a situation that you feel anxious in and notice how you respond.  

2) Begin to encourage yourself to remain in these new situations and repeat to yourself that you are excited, express to others your excitement.

3) If you feel you have entered into a threatened state, i.e. you feel shaky, nervous, apprehensive, take some time out, taking some deep breaths, relax the body and mind.

4) Outside of your training environment develop a practice of deep breathing, of meditation or relaxation, allow your body to regularly feel a completely relaxed state free of thoughts/worries of physical stress, in this way you will develop skills that can be initiated in times of need.