Is your performance anxiety slowing you down?

We’ve all been there – that moment when we wonder just what the heck we signed ourselves up for.

As I stood on the beach, awaiting the start of Ironman Mont Tremblant, I was filled with nervous anxiety–more than I had ever felt before.

I was about to race – truly race – this Ironman. While I put forth a good effort in my previous two ironmans, I cannot say honestly that I worked to the upper limit of my edge. I cannot say honestly that I raced them.

I was filled with fear that I wouldn’t be able to hit my targets, that I would find out that I’m really not the athlete I want to be – that I thought I was. I was afraid I would disappoint myself, John and my family, and my coach.

I could only think about the outcome. Would it be what I wanted?

The more I thought about the outcome, the more nervous I became.

In the moments before the canon went off, John came over to talk to me about my swim placement, making a suggestion that where I was standing maybe wasn’t the best option.

I felt paralyzed. I started tearing up.

“I don’t know what to do!” I blurted, as one of the tears escaped and ran down my chin. He seemed startled.

He later told my family and I that he had never seen me like that. And, that’s the truth. I had never felt that way before.

Holy goodness. I was NERVOUS! I’ve been known to tear up before a race, but it’s usually due to excitement and feeling overwhelmed with positive emotion. This was NOT positive. This was fear. I could smell it on myself.

As it turned out, that anxiety is likely what contributed to a day spent with cramps, as I wrote in a previous entry.  While I overcame that adversity for a PR performance, I’ve been wondering how I can prevent it in the future.

John joked that I’d have to add a sports psychologist to my support crew. For a moment, I thought he might be right. Then, as luck would have it, I got some answers that help to explain why my nerves turned into fearful anxiety, instead of joyful excitement.

Last weekend, John and I attended a 2-day seminar on a wide variety running topics, at the Atlantic Sports Health Running Summit. One of the lectures, presented by Peter Thompson, was titled: “Reversal Theory: Transforming Anxiety into Excitement.”

This sounded promising. I wasn’t disappointed.

Reversal Theory & Controlling Arousal

As a particular event (racing or training) gets closer, we become physiologically and psychologically aroused. Arousal is a continuum that goes from deep sleep to intense excitement or energy.

Clearly, we don’t want to be on the verge of sleep before a race, but we also don’t want to have such intense arousal that our performance is affected negatively. A certain amount of arousal – excitement – is necessary for a solid race-day performance. It’s what gives us that extra edge. Thompson discussed how some techniques that are designed to calm anxiety are actually counterproductive to performance because these techniques calm us down too much.

So, how can we turn that negative anxious energy into more positive excited energy? Enter reversal theory.

Reversal theory comes from the field of psychology, and focuses on the relationships among personality, motivations, emotions and behavior. According to the theory, our personalities are not rigidly fixed as anxious OR excited, happy OR sad, playful OR serious. Rather, we shift between and among these oppositional states, which makes perfect sense. So far, this is not quite revolutionary knowledge.

But, hold on – there’s more to it.

We can learn how to switch (or reverse) between states – hence the name reversal theoryWhile the theory includes a series of motivational states, two are particularly relevant to sport-based motivations: Telic and Paratelic. Understanding these states can help us learn to control our emotional and physical reactions to arousal.

When we are in a paratelic state, we experience arousal as a pleasurable experience – hence, excitement. When we are in a telic state, we experience arousal as an unpleasurable and maybe even dangerous experience – hence, anxiety.

A telic state emphasizes end-goals. We do a particular activity simply as a means to an end. The focus is external, and may overemphasize how others think of us. When we are in a telic state, our behaviors are motivated by achieving a particular outcome, and the research suggests that those who are in a telic state are more likely to experience arousal as anxiety.

A paratelic state emphasizes the process, and is often thought to be a more playful state of mind. We revel in the activity, and that helps propel us to our goals. The athlete in a paratelic state is more likely to be motivated by an enjoyment of the process, and an ability to stay focused in the present moment, on the immediate task, rather than the end-goal or outcome. While in a paratelic state, we are more likely to experience arousal as enjoyment or excitement.

Most importantly, the research has found that athletes who are in a paratelic state have better performances than those who are in a telic state because they are better equipped to manage their arousal in a positive way.

Usually, when I race, I am excited about the experience, and I relish the fun of each moment – even when it hurts. I like to think I’m mostly paratelic. But, before IMMT, I was in more of a telic state, and as I became aroused, I experienced this arousal as intense anxiety – instead of excitement.


I was overly focused on outcome in a way I have never been before. Here’s what I’ve learned: this mental focus is wasted energy because we cannot control the outcome. We can only control our actions and reactions in the present moment. Whatever that means for the outcome is what it means.

Goals are good to have, but when the goals become emphasized over the process of achieving those goals, we do ourselves a disservice – expecially when it comes to our ability to manage our anxiety.

Okay, so this explains – at least in part – why I may have felt so nervous. So what? I can’t change that, right?

Well, hold on, there’s more to it.

We can make choices as athletes (and as coaches) to switch our state. It may not be as easy as switching a light on or off, but it is possible.

Learning to Reverse States

Protective Frames

When we have an experience with anxious arousal, and the perceived danger is overcome, we can create what is called a protective frame. For example, I was nervous about my ability to swim hard, and survive the mosh pit. Well, I swam hard AND I survived the mosh pit. The theory suggests that next time, my reflection about this positive experience will prevent me from being anxious about it. Instead, I will be excited for the experience.

Is it that simple? Of course not. But, I do believe that we can build upon positive experiences, and learn from negative ones. Mental skills training – such as imagery and visualization – can build confidence and help us focus on the process of training and racing.

Our training can include visualization sequences that fortify these protective frames, developing both internal and external dimensions. An internal imagery exercise would emphasize how we feel during movement and racing. In visualization, we are not just trying to experience the physiological sensations, but also the emotional sensations. An external imagery exercise would help build confidence by visualizing a successful performance. Be wary of overemphasizing the external, however, as this can promote a telic state. Find a balance!


Thompson identified three key triggers that may encourage a reversal of state: 1) a positive surprise or a negative setback; 2) Frustration; 3) spending a long time in one particular state may make it easier to switch. When you find yourself in one of these situations, you can make choices to shift to a more present-minded, process-oriented approach to training and racing.

This ability to identify and act upon these triggers takes focused training. Just like we train our bodies, we need to train our minds. Recognize the situation, assess your current frame, and work on channeling your thoughts to focus on the task at hand, without concern or focus on the end-result or completing the task.


When we think or talk about our training and racing, we can make shifts in our language that will help us exist in a more paratelic state. In discussing training and racing, we should use language that emphasizes how we want to feel in “that” moment, and what we can do to bring that feeling about. This is a shift from thinking and talking about specific time goals, speeds or paces.

The research has also found that humor can be helpful in bringing about a playful paratelic state. John is especially good at this, and usually he can get me laughing before a race starts.

While understanding these states won’t automatically make your anxiety disappear, with focused mental training, you can be better prepared to turn your anxiety into excitement.

Do you have tips and tricks for managing anxiety? Please share!


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  5. Loved this. So enlightening.

    I am like you in that I am paratelic, but I felt telic at Maine. Why? Because it was a first time ocean swim in COLD ASS water. That had me so anxious that I could actually feel my stomach turn. I used the bathroom 4x that AM and I am normally a 2x.

    The thing was that once I was in the water it was like any other race with arms and legs and bodies everywhere and I just got settled in quickly and moved.

    Now that I got through that cold water swim I feel prepped for the cold water at IMAZ. I am no longer concerned about the water and if I need two swim caps then so be it, but otherwise it is just another 2.4 mi swim.

    I also think that this is why the first race of any distance is nothing but a warm-up to the 2nd race at that distance. We focus so much on the finish during training that we don’t focus on the journey that is training. Then when the gun goes off we are so focused on hitting that goal that we don’t enjoy the day for the memories.

    I am fortunate to have had a ton of help going into my first IM that I can tell you just about everything from that day as I was so focused on enjoying the day. I raced it but never cared if I finished at the 11:30 goal or not and was going for it.

    Now for IMAZ I have a goal and I will be pushing my limits but at the same time I know I will enjoy the day. I will also remember everything b/c it is a 3 loop bike and 3 loop run course so no issues not remembering the stuff that is out there…..haha!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Jason. I got quite a bit from the lecture, and wanted to share the juicy bits.

      My best advice for IMAZ: Stay focused on the present moment, and enjoy it. What it ends up being, is what it ends up being on the time clock 🙂

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