The feeling of anxiety is fundamentally the same as the feeling of excitement from a neurological and psychological perspective. The only difference is the emotion we attach to it.
To help athletes control these emotions, sport psychologist Steve Peters has developed the Chimp Paradox. Peters, resident psychiatrist of the British Cycling and Sky ProCycling teams (which supported Bradley Wiggins in the Tour de France and Olympic time trial titles in 2012), claims that athletes can control their fight-or-flight “chimp” instincts by understanding how the brain works.
The Chimp Paradox
According to Peters, people are made up of two parts, “human” and “chimp.” The “human” part is our fundamental character, which governs how we react when we have time to consider things. This part is logical and moral.
Then, there’s the “chimp.” The chimp is the reactive, emotional part, which takes control when we feel like we’re in danger. The chimp controls our fight-or-flight response, protecting us when we’re in danger and when there’s no time for morals or logic. According to Peters, the chimp is five times stronger and quicker than the human. Once the chimp has control, we’re unable to think rationally, and because it’s so strong, we can’t fight it.
Training the Chimp
Peters says that because the chimp will inevitably take over at some point, it’s important to exercise it safely. Exercising your chimp means allowing your fears and anxieties to come to the surface at a time and place of your choosing.
During warm-ups, let the chimp play, dredging up all the things that could go wrong. Think thoughts like, “everyone else is better,” “I could get injured,” “I might not be that good today,” “I don’t feel well” and “I’m not 100 percent fit.” Peters says that the chimp will eventually exhaust itself. There are only so many things that can go wrong, and as the exercise goes on, the scenarios becoming less likely. The trick is to refrain from arguing with the chimp. Let it run wild.
Once the chimp has exhausted itself, the human, logical and rational mind can deal with the fears it has surfaced. Is everyone else actually better than you? If they are, what are you going to do about it? Injury is always a possibility, but you’ve trained hard and warmed up properly to prevent it. You get the idea.
By allowing your chimp to exercise in a safe place, you can control your anxiety far better than if you try to fight it during competition.
This is only a summary of Peters’ theory. Check out The Chimp Paradox for a full exposition.
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