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Mental Performance from the Bottom Up

By Alex Diaz, Ph.D. | June 09, 2021, 12:37 p.m. (ET)

Man standing, preparing for the swim

In triathlon, success hinges on an athlete’s mental attitude as much as skill. What we think and how we manage competitive stress while swimming, cycling and long-distance running can significantly impact achievement. So, why is it that athletes can still underachieve in highly pressured moments despite using positive thinking? An understanding of the body’s central nervous system and how it captures and sends information up to the brain may shine light on how to benefit triathlon athletes in their quest to manage stress by using a bottom-up approach. 

An Athlete’s Brain 
Western culture embraces the understanding that outcomes rest in our thinking process, known as a top-down approach. Promoting positive thinking helps the mind to stay focused on positive outcomes. “I can do it,” or “just keep moving forward,” are self-talk mental strategies that helps us reframe negative into positive thoughts. As such, weight is given on the newer part of the brain, the neo-cortex, which is considered home of reasoning. From here, we tend to believe we can control our brain to do what we tell it to do. If this were the case, then uncomfortable sensations, such as butterflies in the belly, sweaty palms, or pressure in our neck, would go away by using a positive reframing. However, we know that it will not work. Sensations and thoughts are two separate human languages that require two separate communication styles. The sensation language is captured by our central nervous system, which sends its experiences to the older part of the brain, the reptilian brain (Levine, 1997). This bottom-up mechanism allows for our life experiences to be stored as implicit memories. From happy to stressful memories, our physiology remembers all those experiences. When we recall stressful moments uncomfortable bodily, non-verbal, sensations creep in. Hence, it is not always that our thinking guides our athletic performance. How past memories trigger implicit sensations associated with the flight, fight and freeze survival responses equally impact performance. 

Flight, Fight and Freeze 
An athletes’ nervous system, just like any other human being, is organized to respond to perceived threats. Race expectations, outside pressures, or uncontrollable race circumstances have all the potential to trigger one’s autonomic physiological fight or flight reactions. Although it is JUST a race, an athlete’s physiology will respond as if it is a matter of life or death.   
The human physiology is organized to complete fight or flight responses upon perceived threats. Once completed, the body returns to a physiological hemostasis. However, when a perceived threat is met with the impossibility to complete those responses, the thwarted energetic arousal remains in the body as a freeze response in our implicit memory. Every time a situation resembles one that is associated with that thwarted response, the body will intent to complete such an arousal by way of sending uncomfortable bodily sensations  
For instance, as the coach yells at an athlete, his/her body instantly responds to either a fight or flight response. But, the neo-cortex—the thinking brain—will stop those impulses from being completed as punching or running away from the coach will only make things worse. A future encounter with a coach will trigger the nervous system to elicit those thwarted responses. Sweaty palms, distractions, throwing up, and muscle tension are bodily signals of a compromised nervous system in a freeze response wanting to complete fight or flight response. Once the athlete’s physiology reaches this stage, a cognitive approach will fail to help the body from completing these non-verbal responses. However, a bottom-up strategy will facilitate the completion of the autonomic process.    
A Developmental Process 
It is a human condition to experience felt-sense awareness before turning them into a verbal language. Babies connect with parents by exchanging gazes. Smiles are expressed and an implicit relationship is created. Later in life, a verbal dialogue is developed. Human behavior shapes around a combination of personal genes and life experiences, both supportive and upsetting. Such experiences mold a neurological imprint in our brains leading to the development of behaviors whose roots lie in implicit subconscious memories.  
When we meet our implicit needs, we say we have achieved coherence. It is an embodied synchronicity that humans embrace to achieve present moment awareness and self-regulation (Sze, et al., 2010). Opposite to a coherence experience is one where technical thought, ruminating negative emotions, and overwhelming expectations interfere with fully trusting in one’s abilities. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls it Flow. It is the experience of being fully submerged in the essence of the action, free of critical ego while pursuing one’s ultimate personal best.  
Emotionally regulated athletes reach coherence when there is a match between what they sense and what they express. Rather than minimizing or rationalizing emotions or tense moments, an emotionally regulated athlete not only feels the upsetting emotion by embodying a faster heart palpitation, but also by verbalizing its content. Thus, sensations are embraced, normalized, and accepted. When athletes attune to a coherent emotional awareness, an implicit-explicit level of a coherence takes place. In so doing, the athlete’s body is physiologically organized to regulate stressful moments and is prepared to emotionally respond to the challenges of competition.  

Peak Performance from the Bottom Up 
Achieving peak performance means training our mind to remain focused during mental and physical challenges, to notice what’s happening in our bodies as well as in our brain. Athletes who are in synchronicity with their bodily sensations and mental cognitions can push beyond their apparent physical limits. Their holistic mindset promotes resilience and enhances self-belief.  
There are several holistic approaches that aim at eliciting implicit language attunement for the purpose of self-regulating emotions to achieve flow. Yoga, mindfulness, breathing relaxation, and somatic psychology embrace the connection between the verbal and non-verbal language. These practices help to develop a greater sense of tuning in to the felt-sense awareness and, as such, enhance the capacity to regulate emotions, experience present moment awareness, and increase an athlete’s chances to achieve peak performance.  

There are several holistic approaches that aim at eliciting implicit language attunement for the purpose of self-regulating emotions to achieve flow. Yoga, mindfulness, breathing relaxation, and somatic psychology embrace the connection between the verbal and non-verbal language. These practices help to develop a greater sense of tuning in to the felt-sense awareness and, as such, enhance the capacity to regulate emotions, experience present moment awareness, and increase an athlete’s chances to achieve peak performance.  

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers 
 
Levine, P.A. (1997). Waking the tiger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.  
 
Sze, J. A., Gyurak, A., Yuan, J. W., & Levenson, R.W. (2010). Coherence Between Emotional Experience and Physiology: Does Body Awareness Training Have an Impact? Emotions, 10 (6), p. 803-814.

Alex Diaz, Ph.D.

Dr. Alex Diaz is a 20-year licensed psychotherapist who holds a doctoral degree in Clinical / Somatic Psychology. As certified in Performing Edge Coaching, he focuses on two areas: improving competitive performance and enhancing mental health awareness by applying research-based neurophysiological and cognitive strategies to facilitate emotional regulation, resilience, focus, and wellness. He conducts his work in private practice serving school, collegiate, and professional athletes as well as being a member of the Mental Health Registry for the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee and a Mental Wellness provider for US Cycling.