I listened to a friend talk about her fears very openly today. Athletes and musicians–anyone who has to perform on demand–have the same fears when it comes to failure. She said she could feel her chest tightening and a sinking feeling of dread overcoming her, but she was aware of the feeling and she knew how to get rid of it. The solution was to go home and practice some of the more difficult parts in the music we were playing together. She clearly thought that her experience somehow wasn’t normal.
People are smart. We know exactly what is wrong with us and it seems we’re all experts at self-diagnosis. I failed a lot of times as a rower. While training in my single scull, I was still finding my balance and falling in the water less than two years before the Olympics. I don’t think I would have made it to the Games if I waited until achieving perfect balance before pushing myself in training. We give ourselves too much credit when it comes to self awareness and we tend to put off failure until later and later and later. I don’t know many Olympic medalists who got on the podium without a coach pushing them beyond what they thought possible. Unfortunately (uncomfortably), there is no better way to grow than to try really hard right now and fall flat on your face, and then keep trying just as hard. The chest tightening is not pleasant, but I find it becomes less overwhelming if you just accept it and do your best anyways. Look at the feeling as just another element that can be mastered.
My rowing coach, Mike Spracklen, said that before a big race you should feel some butterflies and adrenaline, and even some of that sinking feeling. If you dwell on it too much it can overwhelm you, but if you don’t feel any fight or flight symptoms then you’re not going to perform to your potential. It’s important to go through the sweaty palms and shallow breathing my friend experienced today. As you continue to work hard at your sport/craft those physiological symptoms will transform from something that inhibits you to something that helps bring out your best.