Mathew Heyman – Found that when he worried less, he performed better. Image: Graham Watson.

Mathew Heyman – Found that when he worried less, he performed better. Image: Graham Watson.

Just imagine if we could be more successful by caring less. That is exactly what happened to Australian cyclist Mathew Hayman.  Keen to successfully finish his year 12 while training as a competitive cyclist, he pushed himself too hard in order to succeed.  The harder he tried the worse he performed, becoming anxious and fatigued, until he found a way to turn down the dimmer switch on his negative self-talk. 

When he worried less his body felt less tense, his heart rate slowed and his breathing calmed.  His more relaxed state however, was confusing, because Mathew had always associated worry with really caring.  It didn’t feel right not to worry about things that were important to him, such as wanting to do well in school and cycling.

Mathew found however, when he worried less he performed better and while it took a while to get used to found it yielded tremendous results.  He said,

“I am still trying to get my head around medalling at the world (cycling) championships by learning to care less.”

Mathew knew that he didn’t really care less, it just felt that way because he put a stop to the negative thoughts which poured unhelpful stress chemicals into his body.  A more relaxed mind created a more relaxed body, so he could concentrate on putting his energy into his physical performance rather than wasting his energy on negative thoughts.

 Image from book by Gayelene Clews:  Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete

Image from book by Gayelene Clews: Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete

A bit of anxiety can help keep us safe.  If our human ancestors had never experienced fear we would not have survived as a species. The ‘fight or flight’response we experience when feeling threatened wakes us up, makes us alert and kicks us into action to flee from danger.

It is okay to feel anxious, but not all of the time.  When there is no real threat to our survival, excessive anxiety is not helpful. Non-physical threats such as the fear of making mistakes in exams, performing poorly in public or not fitting into a friendship group, can trigger anxiety to the point of being debilitating. If you are physically inactive, there is nowhere for the tension caused by anxiety to escape, trapped inside your physical body.

Burning too much adrenalin for extended periods of time can tighten and fatigue the body, lower the immune system, interfere with concentration and decision making and negatively impact mental health.  Feeling anxious can be so unpleasant we may choose to avoid situations or people, as a way of managing our unease but that may not be the best way to cope.

If we avoid situations because they make us anxious, life experiences may be lost.  If we look to events outside of themselves to explain how we feel, we lose control over what happens to us.  It may be an event or another person that is the source of your anxiety, but how you choose to respond to it makes all the difference. Individuals who are more self-aware can change negative and unhelpful ruminations by reframing their experiences and problem solving.  These life-skills help build resilience and give back control from within.

 Image from book by Gayelene Clews:  Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete

Image from book by Gayelene Clews: Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete

So remember it is okay to feel anxious, just turn down the dimmer switch when it gets to be too much by caring less.

Take off your gloomy glasses and look at what is good in life rather than focusing on what isn’t.

Smash the crystal ball if all you see is doom and gloom in the future and focus on what you can do, do it well and let the future take care of its self.

You really don’t know what some else is thinking so don’t assume it is negative, it probably isn’t even about you.

Stop comparing yourself with others, who cares, just be your own unique self.

You don’t want others to criticize you so stop beating yourself up – talk to yourself like a good friend.

Avoid putting others down, if you don’t want others to criticize you.

Don’t snowball small problems into big issues, ask yourself who really cares and let go of the small stuff.

Look for shades of grey, it’s softer than focusing on good or bad, right or wrong, we can all do with a little softness in our lives.

And get rid of guilt, it serves no real purpose, but escalate anxiety into fear.  If you don’t like something, change it.

This extract is from the book Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete by psychologist Gayelene Clews.