Updated: Dec 2, 2021
It’s no coincidence that many triathletes choose Ironman Chattanooga, 70.3 Chattanooga, 70.3 Augusta, or Ironman Louisville as their initial foray into long distance racing. These events have some of the highest first-timer rates in the sport for one primary reason. The swim courses are perceived to be friendlier to weaker swimmers. Each course is either current assisted, a rolling or time trial start, more-often-than-not wetsuit legal, or a combination thereof. Although choosing to participate in races that play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses is a strategy employed by even the best in the sport, most weaker swimmers do so out of fear. They are afraid of failure that could result in physical or emotional harm. Left unchecked, this fear, or more specifically anxiety, can derail an entire performance in the first few seconds or minutes of an event scheduled to last hours. It doesn’t have to be that way. Repetition and simplicity are the keys to reducing or eliminating anxiety, and maintaining control over performance.
Anxiety is a negative physical or mental reaction to situations that an athlete perceives as being stressful. The absence, or presence of anxiety depends on the degree to which the athlete perceives the outcome of the performance to be important and uncertain. The secret to controlling anxiety is actually very simple. An athlete simply needs to reduce the importance and uncertainty involved with an event.
The importance of a performance will be primarily subjective for each athlete, with higher investment usually correlating with higher importance. Perception of importance can be influenced by internal and external forces such as family, friends, coaches, sponsors, etc., but usually boils down to the fact that we are humans who are self-conscious of what others will think of us. Have you ever wondered how young children are able to learn new skills so quickly? It’s because they just want to learn the skill, and they don’t care what else is going on around them when they are trying to learn it. Adults make things more complicated than necessary, but we’ll come back to that shortly. As adults, our level of importance needs to balance out with our level of commitment to success. When performance expectations match investment, anxiety should be low. Or to put things even simpler, don’t write a one-hundred dollar check when you only have five dollars in the bank.
Although we may never be able to attempt a performance with total certainty, we can significantly reduce uncertainty through repetition. Triathletes love their routines. Specific workouts on specific days. Running the same route every week for the long run. Performing the same pre-season conditioning routines that you have done for years simply because they have done them for years. Why? Mostly because doing something differently would require that they venture out of their perceived comfort zone, and that might entail surrendering even the slightest bit of control, and worse yet, taking risks. The routine, or repetition of the routine keeps them in their “safe place”, but more specifically it reduces anxiety. Repetition also builds confidence, and confidence tells athletes that they are in control of a situation.
In a recent Trisutto blog article, coach Brett Sutton wrote about the importance of repetition for achieving exceptional performance. When training cycles and workout plans are structured properly, repetition builds confidence if there is variability to account for adaptations to the training stresses that have been repeated. Small variations in methodology require athletes to extend their comfort zones and accept new challenges, thereby leading to improvements in performance. When athletes are reluctant to variation, repetition will most likely build stagnation and frustration instead of confidence. Much of the blame for adult anxiety regarding learning new training methods is the insistence on “experts” to make the learning process as technical as possible. The reliance on technical jargon and training toys makes learning much more complicated than it needs to be, especially when adult brains are designed to perform, and conditioned to understand how and why things work. Child brains are designed to learn, so wouldn’t it only seem logical that adults might be more efficient learners if they just simplified things?
The major advantage that children have over adults when learning a skill is that they usually don’t have to unlearn poor habits. They get to start from scratch, whereas adults don’t have that luxury. As adults, we can’t simply forget poor habits, so we need to be able to override them and replace them with good habits. The way that we override poor habits is through conscious effort. We must create new muscle memory so that the new skill becomes automatic. The more you practice something, the more it becomes a muscle memory. Practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. It is the repetition of desired behaviors that brings about desired changes. We also know that the simpler the task, the easier it is to concentrate on doing it correctly. Children focus on learning only what is required to master a skill. They aren’t afraid of making mistakes, and they learn from them. Adults make the process more difficult with our desire to know why and how we are learning the skill. We further complicate things by being afraid to make mistakes because we don’t want to look like idiots. Children will focus on a few simple cues, while adults try to focus simultaneously on any and every aspect of performing the skill correctly. Children also follow their natural instincts and rest when they struggle to maintain a conscious effort to practice the skill. Adults will continue practicing a skill once they begin to fatigue and their mental and physical performance begins to suffer, for no other reason than to complete the prescribed practice session. The key to successfully learning a new skill in the most expedient manner is not just repetition, but repetition of quality attempts. It’s better to take brief rest periods and perform more quality attempts than to perform more attempts of poor quality.
Trisutto methods are based on repeating the desired skill over and over, but not just doing repeats until you reach a prescribed total workout volume. The focus is on performing as many desired attempts in the allotted time. Working hard only makes you tired if done incorrectly. Working smart makes you better. We make things as simple as we can, so athletes can focus only on what is required to get better. It’s more difficult for adults to consciously learn skills, so we structure workouts that provide maximal opportunity for athletes to focus only on what is required to master the skills. The belief is that if you are provided with the proper training methods and environment, you’re going to learn whether you want to or not. If you have children, you know how important repetition is to their learning process, especially when they have a new favorite song. You will hear them play that song so many times that it becomes ingrained in your memory, like it or not. It’s done unconsciously, without requiring you to make any effort on your part to try to learn the new tune. As athletes, mastering new skills can be just as easy if we can simply embrace simplicity. Embrace your inner child. After all, it is still just a game.