The Debilitating Impact of Anxiety on Performance

By Dr. Mitchell Greene | Nov. 26, 2018, 12:12 p.m. (ET)

A competitor runs in Sarasota

How is it possible that the same triathlete in one race can feel so confident, determined and gritty, and in the next one, be so totally fearful, tentative and distracted? 

Amanda can tell you how. 

She’s a middle-aged triathlete, who just six weeks after a successful race, experienced shortness of breath and obsessive worry before and during her latest Olympic-distance event.

The backstory is that Amanda and I had met, a year prior, when she attempted her second-ever triathlon at the Jersey Shore. At the time, I offered this newbie some very practical advice to quell her nerves. I remember telling told her to break down the sprint-distance race into “chunks” to feel less overwhelmed by the distance.

A year later, Amanda sought me out again at my expo booth, having raced 10 more times since we last spoke! Yet, on this day, I barely recognized her.

Through her tears, she told me she was so nervous for this race that she wasn’t sure if she would be able to (or wanted to) get out of bed the next day. Amanda was feeling so frazzled, even though six weeks prior she “executed [her] race plan perfectly,” and came in third in her age-group in a small town Olympic-distance race.

One thing was clear, in a year’s time, triathlon had become serious business for Amanda; she hired a triathlon coach, and now rode by watts and ran by heart rate.

A week prior to the expo, she opened an email from her coach that said, “YOU GOT THIS!” in the subject line. The coach announced she would be coming to watch this race, and expected Amanda would win her age group if all went according to plan. Since opening the email, Amanda had been consumed with the fear of disappointing her coach, herself, and her family, who already thinks she spends too much time and money doing triathlons.

Amanda acknowledged to me that she has experienced severe anxiety like this before, but not for many years, and that it may be spiking now because her 6-year old son has been feeling sick for months without any clear idea as to the cause of it. Of course, she “hates” the idea of being away from him.

The race was less than 24 hours away, so we talked about whether she could talk her concerns through with her coach; she said she was too afraid to do that. I encouraged her to consider not racing so she could focus on herself and her other priorities; she said that she had to race.

I tried to have Amanda find a quiet place to do some breathing work to lower her heart rate and sense of dread; she said she was too upset to do that. Amanda then offered that her doctor back home had prescribed her a pill (a fast-acting anti-anxiety medication) which she had taken only a few times before to help her calm down. She was concerned that taking the medication might negatively impact her performance. Thankfully, she was able to see that taking the pill might be her only way to dial back her anxiety in such a short period of time.

Amanda called me later that night, as I had encouraged her to do, and said that she had taken the medication after speaking with her doctor. Still, I was not optimistic that she would wake up feeling like a new person. The next morning, Amanda started the race, and after coming out of the water, she felt like she could barely breathe, and thankfully chose to discontinue the race.

Afterward, we agreed that triathlon had become much more “serious” than she had ever intended it to be. In many ways, triathlon has been a huge positive for Amanda, who has transformed herself into an athlete, and had “never felt so strong.”

However, in her quest to get more out of herself, Amanda’s only coping mechanism for stress has been to intensify her training and expand her racing schedule. We agreed that if it wasn’t this race, it might have been the next one when everything would have come to a head.

As I explained to Amanda, as strong as she’s become, no one is immune to the stresses and pressures of life on and off the race course. Just ask Olympic triathlete Sarah True, whose own struggles with depression has helped her take up the cause of advising triathletes to understand that “feeling powerless and weak” isn’t a sign of mental weakness but a clue that it’s time to stop trying to do everything by yourself and ask for help.

One of the notable signs of significant anxiety that Amanda displayed was the inability to rid herself of “catastrophic thinking.” The mind, in this state of fear, focuses on worst-case scenarios, and our bodies, as well, show telltale signs of panic (e.g., erratic breathing) and distress (e.g., stomach/bowel problems).

Even though Amanda tried to tell herself it's “only a triathlon,” when under the grip of anxiety, she felt forced to treat the race as if her entire survival was at stake. At times like these, there are no shortcuts to becoming mentally healthy.

Instead, with the help of others, you can begin taking stock of your priorities, identify your stressors and coping mechanisms, and/or take a temporary hiatus from the sport all together. Of course, finding a trusted professional resource, like a therapist or sport psychologist, can be immensely helpful to learn additional strategies to manage day-to-day stress, and to help reset priorities so one can appreciate that triathlon is meant to be about recreation, and not obligation.

Amanda reached out to me recently and said still feels embarrassed about not finishing the race and acting so “emotional.” I explained to her that when the sport she sought out for stress-relief becomes the stressor itself, there’s no choice but to feel overwhelmed. To that she said she’s coming back to that same race next year. This time, however, she plans to turn the weekend into a family beach vacation week.

And, more importantly, we both crossed our fingers that her son will be feeling well enough to be there for her, cheering his mom on for being so brave and so darn strong. 

Dr. Mitchell Greene is a clinical and sport psychologist, located in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For more information on Dr. Greene and his services for triathletes, go to greenepsych.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.