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Charlie Unwin - Episode 11 - Mental Training for Nerves & Anxiety

Watch Episode 11 here


If you would prefer to read a text version of Charlie's latest vlog - check out the video transcript below

Amy Williams:

Welcome to the U Perform channel. And we're back here with Charlie, our mental performance expert. And today we're going to talk about that, performance anxiety, and the stress of that within sport.

You might have noticed today, we are in a slightly different location. I have brought you all to my gym. We have got some dumbbells don't worry. Well, you might be telling me to lift them later and whatever we're going to talk about.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. You 'weight.' Thank you very much for inviting us here. It's good to be here and also really apt because this is a subject which for me should be really, really practical. So it's nice to be able to kind of do it. We should be doing this every day as part of our training.

Amy Williams:

Well, where do we start then? That kind of the aspect of stress and performance and anxiety, especially when you're competing or preparing to get ready for a race, how on earth and what do we do to help ourselves?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. You know what it's like, to have to deal with that sort of anxiety that expectation to perform. So this is probably the biggest subject that I get asked to talk about and work with athletes on. I think because it's the subject that always shows up in competition and stops people from being able to recreate what they know they're capable of doing.

So working with performance anxiety is without doubt something that every athlete has to work with at some point. Now I take a very positive approach to this, um, as with everything that I do. So we're going to be learning about mental training with regards to performance anxiety, which for me is really, really important. The idea of training rather than coping, actually getting good at this stuff, making it part of our day to day, not just turning up to competition and just coping with it. I'm sure you kind of relate to those two different kind of approaches to dealing with anxiety.

Amy Williams:

Well, I think just using those words, training, you know, we train our bodies in the gym, lifting weights and actually to think of the same mental preparation as training as well, I think is a really good way to focus.

Charlie Unwin:

Yes, exactly that. And actually I take that analogy further, right. So if you imagine that in order to get stronger, you know, you lift, you're lifting your dumbbells, what are you doing? You're putting your muscles under stress in order that they adapt stronger. It's exactly the same mentally. We actually have to be able to put ourselves under controlled stress in order to learn and have the confidence to deal with stress.

The problem, the challenge I find in life in general, is that very often our coping mechanisms involve avoiding stress, moving away from it. And the problem is we never kind of learn how to get good at it. We never lift up a dumbbell. So for me, the analogy works really well.

Amy Williams:

So Charlie, what else is important to your approach to all of this training and the stress?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the second point I'd make is that stress is good for you. It's really important. When you were walking up to the start line, at say an Olympic Games, what do you notice in yourself, in your body, what's going on for you?

Amy Williams:

Yeah, I guess, you know, any competition is sort of that stressful environment that you're walking into. Olympic Games, I can remember physically my legs were shaking with nerves. You've got this camera literally stuck behind you, like focusing in on your legs and your feet. It literally was about a meter away. And I think you're, aware of all the people, your heart rate, you know, is a lot, lot higher. Your shoulders are maybe more and you know, all of these things and then you're trying to keep control of it whilst focusing and thinking of that physical performance that you're about to do. Yeah.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. And it can be a real distraction can't it. Like I said, if you're not confident, either sitting with all that stuff or being able to manage it, it can really take away from the very simple things that you're there to do.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. And I mean, for me, I remember, I mean, just the butterflies in your stomach. Like when you talk about that nervy, butterfly, sicky feeling. And it was there.

Charlie Unwin:

Do reckon there is any athlete who doesn't get that at all, or do you reckon this is universal?

Amy Williams:

You know what, I'd like to think it is universal, but I reckon that potentially there are a few very unique people that don't get it at all. And then there are some that, you know, while the normal people do, and then it's just obviously how you manage it and control it. And what your feelings and thoughts are towards it, making that positive or negative experience.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. No, absolutely. I mean, there are two things in there that I'll pick up on. Firstly, the way you describe it in your stomach and your legs. There's a real physiological response. And that's what I call classic nerves. Nerves for me relates to what's going on in our body. So we've got to be able to attend to that, to relax our muscles and to sort of get control of that. But, I think to your point, it is going to be there, there may be a tiny section of people who don't experience that, but you know what I'm not sure, I'm not sure. I think if we really care about what we're there to do, we're going to feel that. Then there is another components of anxiety there, which was in the head, mental anxiety, like worry, the thoughts that you have that may lead to nerves or the thoughts that you may have as a result of nerves.

And these are two very separate things that we need to be able to work on as athletes, we need to be able to address the mental anxiety and the thoughts that we're having. We need to be able to address the physiological side of things. And that's exactly how I approach working with performance anxiety. Of course, the overriding rule in the thing we always have to remind ourselves is that this is good for us. Right. I mean, I'm sure to some extent that the impact that stress was having on your body probably helped you in some ways.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. I think you do have to have enough. And I think, like you said earlier, it shows that you care, it shows that you care about what the results going to be, that you're kind of nervous and anxious about it and that sort of pressure on yourself. I always had to tell myself, no, these nerves are a good thing. Like you're excited, you're excited to perform, and you're excited to see what your result is going to be. That was sort of my way.

Charlie Unwin:

Great, so you were reframing the way that you're thinking about it, which is a classic tool, you know, which we will come onto at some point. So, nerves are good. And in fact, what's going on in your body, your heart rate is obviously going up, you mentioned that blood pumping to your muscles where you need to maximise energy in the muscles.

That's good. So as long as the muscles stay relaxed, because the moment and it's funny isn't it in sport, we're often met with this moment of stillness before you perform. And the challenge with that is that when we're still, when we're sat down, like we are now, if we're feeling nervous about what we're doing or what's coming up, that energy doesn't have anywhere to go. And so it kind of sits in the body, doesn't it. And that's when I think we start to tense up and you mentioned your shoulders just racking up slightly. So we need to be able to address that and we need to get so good at addressing that, that it's something we do unconsciously, albeit initially it's a process that we have to do very much consciously.

Amy Williams:

So apart from all this extra energy in our muscles, what are the other positives that you can sort of tell us with all their sort of anxiety and stress?

Charlie Unwin:

I mean, stress always gets used as a, as a bad terms and negative term, but actually stress from the scientific perspective, is what I would consider as just an increase in energy. So we've spoken about that energy to the muscles, but there's also energy that goes to the head, to the brain as well.

Now, how we channel that energy becomes whether nerves become useful to us or not. In other words, can we stay focused on what's important despite our heart rate going and with this extra kind of energy in the brain that we all feel. Or do we become overwhelmed, and if we become overwhelmed, we almost kind of give up, you know, we lose it and then it just becomes about coping in the moment. So this extra energy mentally can help us think faster. It improves our cognitive abilities. It allows us to focus better, stronger, and allows us greater levels of commitment, and grit to what we're doing. So harnessed well, we need stress.

Amy Williams:

So now we know all of that. What kind of step to step approach do you give to your athletes so that they can go away and actually work on it and train through the steps to feel less stress I guess?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, that's the important thing. So I'd say there are three steps. I'd say the first is kind of having a conversation like we've had. Trying to help them build a positive understanding of what's going on in their minds and bodies when they're under pressure. So that they can like you, start to reframe it as something positive. So I think, I think the education part of it is really important.

So that's the first thing. The second thing is then about being able to actually invite stress. And I know this sounds really weird but unless we invite stress, we don't know, or we don't get confident using the strategies that allow us to deal with it. We don't know what we're capable of. So we tend to just shy away from it. So we understand it a little bit more and our relationship with it, we've started to invite it in a controlled way into our day-to-day training and we'll chat more about what that looks like.

And then the final step really, is about training our response to it. So being able to apply simple techniques that allow us to gain control, and those really break down to three things for me: there's our breathing and our capacity to maintain good breathing. There is relaxation, active, muscular relaxation, not chilling in front of Netflix or something like that, but physically actively relaxing our muscles at the point that we need it. And then the final thing is around visualisation, an untapped tool for many athletes, but absolutely essential for training our mental and physiological response to stress.

Amy Williams:

Sounds good to me. I can kind of already relate to every single one of them. So the good thing is is that Charlie is going to be taking us through all of these different things, the breathing, the relaxation and the visualisation in the next episode. So set that reminder, ring the bell, subscribe, and we will see you in the next episodes.


Tune in next week for Episode 12!

See you then.

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