Recent research in neuroscience has taught us a lot about why you feel nervous. Here are the cliff notes. There’s a part of your brain that is responsible for virtually all of your anxiety about training and racing. Technically speaking it’s called the ‘limbic system’ – but think of it like a CHIMP.
A very strong, emotional, paranoid, reacting machine that hasn’t quite grown up to make logical rational decisions. Its sole purpose in brain world is to save you from death and to make sure your fundamental needs get met. In contrast, the part of your brain that’s the ‘real you’ – the part that deals with facts and logic and can think like an adult — is the ‘frontal cortex.’
Think of your frontal cortex as your PROFESSOR brain. It’s smart, rational, and did well in school. The CHIMP analogy is the brain child of Dr Steve Peters, a sports psychiatrist who has worked extensively with British Olympic athletes. In his book, The Chimp Paradox, Dr Peters lays out a ‘mind management model’ useful for teaching people to understand how the mind works and how to maximize sports performance.
With very few exceptions, your CHIMP brain is pretty immune to being hacked, controlled, or manipulated. And this is for very good reason.
We wouldn’t survive very long if the part of your brain responsible for your protection could be easily tricked. In fact, it’s wired to take charge when it feels threatened (physically or psychologically). It receives information five times quicker than your PROFESSOR brain and then throws a chemical brick at it to make it five times stronger.
Willpower is no match for the CHIMP. However, since you’re no longer being hunted in a loin cloth (your CHIMP brain was designed millions of years ago) you rarely need saving from death. The result is that it over reacts to things. It brings a fire engine to blow out a match.
In a race, your CHIMP starts running his mouth… “You might drown during the swim, you shouldn’t be doing this!” “You’re going to be the slowest person out there, you’re going to come dead last!” “Don’t do this. People are going to laugh at you and wonder what you’re doing in a race with real athletes” And so it continues. Well here’s how to control the school bully.
- Learn to recognize when your brain has been hijacked by the CHIMP. Only one of your brains can be in charge at any one time. When you feel nervous or anxious before a race, your CHIMP is almost certainly in charge. When you’re nauseous about the thought of an open water swim start or barreling down a steep descent on a bike, your CHIMP is in charge. In fact, the secret to knowing which brain is in charge at ANY time is to ask yourself one very simple question: “Do I want to think or feel like this?” If the answer is NO, you’ve been hijacked by your CHIMP brain. Welcome to normal life. So what can we do about it?
- Never arm wrestle your CHIMP. You will lose every time if you try to fight and control your CHIMP. Remember, it’s five times stronger and five times quicker than the real you, the PROFESSOR brain. The best strategy is to manage it. Think of it like the cranky old aunt at Thanksgiving dinner who blurts out inappropriate and offensive things. We regain control not by forcing her to leave, but treating her with love, care, and trying to avoid saying or doing things that will set her off.
- Give your CHIMP some exercise by letting him run his mouth.
Let your CHIMP run wild for a few minutes. Say everything that your CHIMP is saying, unedited and unfiltered, out loud or in your own head. The important thing is to let him have his tantrum without interrupting him. Just let him have his time. Eventually you will tire him out. But he will feel listened to. It’s important that you do this until you run out of things to say. “Why do you do this to yourself? You know those shorts make your thighs look fat, don’t you? You’re going to embarrass yourself. You’re a fake. You’re a joke.” Keep going until you can’t think of anything else to say. On the face of it, this might seem counter-productive because you’re being horrible to yourself! But if you understand that it’s your CHIMP talking, not you, and the goal is CHIMP exhaustion, he will eventually cry himself to sleep.
- Put your CHIMP in a cage by using facts and logic that your CHIMP cares about. Think about which patterns of negativity your CHIMP loves the most? Catastrophe? Public ridicule? Physical harm? For each of your CHIMP statements, try to match it with facts and logic about the real consequences. Don’t use fake or false logic (e.g., pretending you won’t come last if you actually might!) but instead ask yourself the so what question. So what if am I slow? So what if I’m overweight? I may be one of the slower athletes, but the back markers get the biggest cheer! Athletes don’t care about what you look like. You’re out there wearing clothes made for the event! No one ever died from doing a race. If you can’t keep up, will there an earthquake? No, you’ll walk and you can bond with other runners who are also walking!” And so on. Psychologists call this “countering” but you can call it caging the CHIMP!
- Use a Banana to distract or reward your CHIMP. Because the brain’s reward centers are all located in the limbic system (i.e., in the CHIMP itself) your CHIMP loves rewards. Find out what reward your CHIMP loves and dangle it in front of him to manage his behavior. Exercising in a group is a banana that CHIMPS love. CHIMPS love being social. Treating yourself to athletic clothes that make your CHIMP feel good is another great strategy because most CHIMPS don’t want to feel judged or self-conscious. Hate getting up for master’s swim and getting into a cold pool? Treat your CHIMP to a reward by occasionally swimming in your wetsuit in the pool! CHIMPs like to be kept warm and safe (afloat). If you have trouble getting out of bed early in the morning and your CHIMP is telling you that it’s SO nice and warm in bed, and you can swim later, force your PROFESSOR to regain control by doing a mental task like counting to 10 and then just throwing back the covers. CHIMPS’ can’t count. The number of banana strategies is endless. Give it a go!