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Dealing with an Uncertain World: Tips from a Triathlete

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I was standing on the start line of my first triathlon. My heart was racing, and I could feel the panic rising through my body. I had prepared for this moment and had put months of hard training into it. When the starting pistol fired, I sprinted with the other competitors towards the ocean and dived in. ‘No!’ my brain screamed as I plunged into the ice-cold waves. 400 metres out from the shore, I had a panic attack and had to be plucked out of the water. Back on dry land, my friends and family reassured me I had tried my best and that everything would be alright, but I knew it wasn’t. I had failed, and that feeling of failure stayed with me for some time.

Never one to give up, however, I decided to have another go. I would put myself on that starting line again, but this time, I would do things differently.

During the recent weeks of lockdown, this scenario and the steps I took to overcome my fears kept playing over in my mind. In a COVID-19 world, no-one knows what tomorrow will bring. It’s a time of huge uncertainty for us all. By following a few simple steps – the same ones I used in my triathlon training – I believe we can equip ourselves with the tools to forge a new way forward.

Here are my tips for coping with uncertainty in an uncertain world.

Find the Source of Your Fear

When it comes to facing fear and uncertainty, the first step is to look for the source. Where are your worries coming from, and what can you do to put them into perspective, change your mindset or come at them from another angle?

I had never suffered a panic attack before. I’ve always considered myself a courageous person, a go-getter. Just ask my friends and colleagues! So, admitting to myself, and others, that I could be frozen by fear was a huge step for me.

The next step, and this was hard too, was finding out what was triggering my fear. I already knew the answer. In a triathlon, swimming is the sport where I have the least confidence. While I excel at cycling and running, put me in the water alongside a bunch of stronger, faster competitors and I feel a sense of inadequacy. This was the area I needed to work on. I changed the way I trained, working on my starts in the pool and regularly swimming with other strong triathletes. As I worked on my fear, I started to slowly move in the right direction.

Reach Out for Support

While it’s normal to feel isolated when facing an uncertain situation, building your support network and knowing when to ask for help is vital for withstanding any kind of difficulty. During my triathlon journey, surrounding myself with like-minded people was a very positive step to take, and the triathlon community were immensely supportive. After my panic attack, many of my fellow competitors revealed they had been through a similar experience. Their honesty encouraged me to open up and speak about my fears.

I also listened to their advice to seek the help of a Sports Psychologist. If someone had told me at the time that eventually I would need counselling for this, I wouldn’t have believed them, but having been there and done that, I cannot recommend the experience highly enough. I learnt techniques to focus on ‘the now’, such as by looking at what other competitors were wearing on the start line and concentrating on each swim stroke or pedal push. Exploring my fears with a top-notch professional and developing the tools to deal with them gave me clarity, confidence and capability.

Celebrate the Small Wins

When you’re dealing with challenging circumstances, every little action counts, and making a conscious effort to celebrate the small wins will give you the endurance you need to keep going.

In this same vein, my triathlon journey was all about taking small steps. I tried not to set my expectations too high and instead focussed on one day at a time. I drew up a list of goals that I hoped to achieve and ticked them off as I went. Getting back in the water after my triathlon upset was cause for celebration, as were successful training sessions with my buddies. I also accepted that I wasn’t ever going to be the best in the water, and instead concentrated on refining my technique in the middle lane. This took some time, but I’m better for it – and my swimming was too!

Control Your Inner Chimp

Everyone has an ‘inner chimp’, I discovered. It’s the part of your brain that gets new information first and goes into fight, flight or freeze mode, and knowing how to handle it is vital for coping with fear and uncertainty.

I’d ignored my chimp for years, refusing to listen to its voice and hoping it would leave me alone. By learning to live with it and nurture it instead, I’ve gained a greater awareness of my thoughts and feelings, and the ability to manage them more effectively. Last year, an old injury started playing up in a running race and I was struggling to push through the discomfort when a training buddy called out ‘Smile!’ from the side-lines. And it worked! By changing my facial expression, I was able to change my mindset. Smile when it hurts, and you show the chimp you’re boss.

Be the Real ‘You’

The need for authenticity is at the heart of everything I’ve learnt on this journey. I am no longer afraid to acknowledge and accept my fear. But rather than battling with it, I am prepared to work with it and grow. It has been one of the most enlightening and enriching experiences for me, both as a triathlete and as a person.

When you’re struggling with a difficult situation, don’t be afraid to be authentic, be honest with yourself and to speak up – you’ll be surprised how many other people are in the same boat!

Closing Thoughts

I didn’t see the full benefits of the work I was doing to face my fear straightaway. In my first couple of triathlons after that shaky swim, I still felt panicky in the water, but I managed to keep breathing and complete the course. When I lined up in Tauranga a few weeks later, however, I finished second in my age group and qualified for the Long-Distance World Championships in Sweden. This big win was followed by another in Wellington the following month, where I qualified to compete with the NZ team at the Olympic-distance World Championships in Chicago. I know I’ll ALWAYS be nervous diving into the water at the start of a race, but I now have the tools under my belt to be able to work through the discomfort and do my best.

As we take small steps towards the new normal, I believe these same tools can help prepare and empower us all in an uncertain world.

For more useful tips or support with your next job search or recruitment drive, please feel free to reach out to me.