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Dealing with Catastrophe

After The Fall

You lost it. You were doing so well— using all those mental skills you have been reading about and practicing, and then it happened. It may have been getting “freaked out” at the beginning of the swim, ticked off after having a flat, blowing up after getting a drafting penalty or just having a “hissy fit” after a bad race when you’ve trained so hard. You know what the zone is, and this definitely is NOT it. Your emotions and focus were screaming out of control. How do you recover as rapidly and efficiently as possible?

Psychologists use the term “emotional arousal” when referring to the tension and anxiety associated with performance. Every individual has an optimal level of emotional arousal for peak performance. Too little arousal and a person feels “flat”, bored or “not in to it”; too much arousal results in choking, being unable to effectively focus or “losing it” as noted above.

Researchers used to believe that the relationship between performance and arousal was like an inverted U. At low levels of arousal, a person has low performance. There is a moderate level of arousal where performance reaches its peak; and then performance declines as arousal continues.

More recently, sport psychologists have revised their thinking about arousal and performance based on the research and theory of British sport psychologist Lew Hardy. Hardy has developed a fairly complex multi-dimensional model, but the bottom line is this: When arousal goes beyond that optimal level, there is not a gradual decline in performance, but a catastrophic drop much like a person going over a cliff. Hardy’s model is aptly named the Catastrophe Model.

Where the Inverted-U Model suggested that a person could merely lower one’s arousal slightly and immediately return to optimal performance, Hardy says it isn’t that simple. Once over the edge, the key to recovery is 1) relaxation, 2) restructuring cognitively and 3) reactivation.

Learning to relax

The first step is to relax and lower one’s level of physiological arousal. Simply slowing down and taking a deep breath is a start. There are also a number of relaxation techniques that a person can learn to help achieve rapid relaxation in any given situation. These may range from fairly elaborate techniques (such as self-hypnosis or progressive muscle relaxation) to the Centered Breathing Technique [described below].

When a person falls over that arousal cliff, he or she is usually flooded with negative thoughts that feed the catastrophe (e.g., This is horrible…I’ll never finish…All my training was wasted…There’s no use in going on). The second step to lower one’s level of mental arousal through a process referred to as cognitive restructuring. This is literally “restructuring” your thinking by countering the negative thoughts with more positive, productive thinking. Often it is a matter of simply remembering what you have practiced and know (you have been practicing your mental skills, haven’t you?). “Just stay calm and swim to the outside of the buoys…I may have to swim further, but I’ll be faster being more relaxed and not having to fight people… Anybody can have a flat, including the people that have passed me— stay cool and focused …Use the penalty time to rest—it will help me on the run.” It must be something you can believe. If you have difficulty coming up with a “counter” to your negative thinking, the “skeleton key” counter that fits any catastrophe is: “Dwelling on the negative will only hinder my performance, it does not help.”

The third step is to reactivate. This means starting back gradually and gently building up to your peak level, rather than attempting to jump-start into high gear. Focus on regaining a rhythm and comfort to your effort. As you settle into a sense of flow, you can increase your intensity and soon be back at that peak level.

Rapid Relaxation Through Centered Breathing

Centered breathing is an excellent means of achieving physical relaxation even while remaining active. It is widely used by athletes in a variety of sports. There are three elements to centered breathing: belly breathing, rhythm and focus.

Belly breathing – As you breathe in let air fill from the bottom of the lungs, much like water fills a balloon from the bottom. Your chest should only rise after your lower lungs are filled. As you expand your diaphragm rather than raising your chest, your belly will protrude and then come back in as you exhale. Practice by lightly placing your hands on your stomach with your fingers gently interlaced (not locked). As you inhale, see how far you can get your fingers to slide apart.

Rhythm – Once you have mastered belly breathing, it is time to add a rhythm to the process. Breath in for a slow five count and then exhale for a slow seven count. The longer exhalation is particularly helpful at reducing the physical tension in the neck and shoulders.

Focus – A person can be breathing properly, but still have their mind and thoughts racing. Temporarily “park” your attention by focusing on the center of your body. This is a point approximately midway between your belly button and your sternum (chest bone). In the Chinese martial arts, this point is the source of energy for the body (called the ch’i , pronounced “chee”). As you exhale, focus your attention and energy at this center. Many people like to choose a cue word to associate with this centering process (such as “relax,” “calm,” or “center”). Say your cue word to yourself as you exhale.

You can easily practice this technique several times throughout the day and in a variety of situations. With regular practice, the relaxation response becomes practically automatic.

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© Copywrite 1999, Dr. Charlie Brown.  All rights reserved.