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Being Calm: Performance, Anxiety, and Flow States

It's been a heavy meet season this fall for the Powerlifters and Weightlifters of Littauer Strength. I'm writing this in the few week lull between several meets which have been going on around the Carolinas and Virginia which I've had athletes competing at. In such, a few of my adult athletes had pointed out how "relaxed" I seem at competitions. Surely, the role of the coach is to be cool, calm, and collected in meet scenarios. But for many who take to the lifting platform (or any sport for this matter), there's a high level of anxiety surrounding competition. Truth be told, however, calmness in a high anxiety state is a skill which could benefit many competitors.

If you've been an athlete for a while, you probably have had games, matches, or meets where everything clicked. You had some nerves, or were stressed, but not so terribly where it impeded performance. In fact, you performed flawlessly in the moment, where things felt focused and dialed in. Everything clicked, and you performed. This is what we call a flow state, and if you've been in sports long enough you've probably heard of it.

Flow states are the state of physical and mental being which allow for optimal performance. Where decisions, focus, and execution happen flawlessly. Sometimes so much so in a way where we feel detached from ourselves.

Flow states, if you're familiar with them, are the point at which anxiety and performance intersect. Everyone gets nerves before big games, even those who seem to be calm and collected. Everyone gets a little anxious. And depending on the scenario, anxiety (and adrenaline) rise in a linear fashion. Performance on the other hand, rises as we warm up and focus, but at some level of adrenaline and anxiety comes back down. It looks like a bell curve.

When we look at the two factors of performance and anxiety, it's important to understand how both are important. You want to have some anxiety and adrenaline. This arouses the mind, and drives a sympathetic response from the nervous system. It allows you to focus, and allows you to stay warm. When we're focused and warm, we can take on the tasks at hand with better precision and speed. Anxiety here, can be a good thing.

At some point, however, anxiety can be too high, and it reverses these positive effects. If we let ourselves get too amped up, performance will start to decline. Your senses get too heightened and aware of all the stimuli. You lose focus because there's too much going on, and the your body starts to shut down.

The in-between of having some anxiety and having no anxiety is where we want to be in competition. Especially for those lifting. We don't want to be so amped up on the platform we forget to go through our standard pre-lift routines or forget to brace for a movement. I see this happen all the time with new lifters (even one currently) who get so hyped up or anxious over a lift or the weight on the bar they let all technique and all sense of skill go out the window. They rush a movement, or default back to old habits. This is dangerous for safety, but also because it takes away from the overall result of the competition.

The third factor involved here, then also relies on the coach's anxiety. One of my athletes in particular seemed to find it unnerving how calm I presented myself as a coach during a meet. But for coaches who work with athletes under a lot of stress or anxiety, we have to be aware of the flow states of our athletes. If I see an athlete is too low an anxiety level to be in a flow state, I present myself as more anxious. If I see an athlete getting too anxious, I have to present myself as more calm (even if I'm not internally). Being able to act as a level for anxiety can be a good thing.

Now, it is very important for an athlete to know these things are happening for themselves too. If an athlete can understand how they can regulate the amount of anxiety they experience, they can make decisions to help heighten or alleviate some of it. People used to think I was weird for it, but I listened to the same few songs when training for weightlifting or powerlifting meets, because of the anxiety response they produced. When I squatted or deadlifted, I always listened to the song "Trauma" by NF, because the low undertones and sad lyrics helped calm the anxiety. When I Bench Pressed I had a certain Kanye West song playing (tragic, I know), because it heightened my anxiety a bit. When I would Snatch in weightlifting training it was the Pirates of The Caribbean theme, and the Inception soundtrack when I Clean and Jerked. These things were something I could do to change the level of anxiety, and when I was competing I'd listen to these songs on repeat to get my mind back to the same state. For athletes, being aware of how to regulate like this is key to performing well.

So whether or not you're an athlete or a coach, understanding how anxiety and calmness can factor into your performance can help improve the outcomes of competition (this can be any sport or task, really). If things are too calm to where you (or your athlete) cannot focus on the task at hand, increasing anxiety may help. If anxiety is too high and is also becoming a distraction, then finding ways to destress is key. Like Goldilocks and the porridge, we're not looking for too hot or too cold. We're looking for just right.

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