The Tapping Foot: How Accepting Fear Can Benefit Sporting Performance

danny williams judo

If you can translate ‘geezer’ into plain English then Geoff Thompson’s short film Bouncer (available for free on YouTube) has an interesting scene in it. One of the main characters, played by Ray Winstone, talks about fear before a physical altercation, how people show it or hide it in  different ways but, that it is always there. In his case he explains that although he appears calm his tapping foot gives away that he is still feeling fear from what may next occur.

It’s interesting isn’t it, when observing different athletes how they appear or perform before performing. Whether a ritual of psyching themselves up or containing themselves it seems that everyone begins to attempt to obtain some level of acceptance of what is about to happen, or to try, in someway, to control it. 

The warm up rooms and tunnels into the stadiums at Judo events can be fascinating places to observe human behaviour when under pressure. We can see people moving around getting charged up to music, some slapping themselves, others sleeping or still and stone-faced. 

Danny Williams Judo

It’s funny because pressure, in theory, doesn’t have to exist. For Judo or any other sport done at high level all that is occurring is an activity that the participants partake in most days, something they are highly familiar with. To take that idea to its most extreme, Plato tells us, in his Apology, of Socrates as a hoplite soldier, renowned for his bravery on the frontline during the Peloponnesian War. Socrates argued that he did not fear death on the battlefield because he was human and was, therefore, destined to die, if not today then soon. It was more important for him to live protecting his own soul by making the next right decision, even if that meant dying. He would only be avoiding the inevitable a bit longer if he compromised his beliefs but would have to live knowing that he had acted cowardly. 

Marcus Aurelius said something similar, “Many grains of incense on the same alter: one falls before, another after; no difference.” 

danny williams judo

Wow. Jumped a couple of steps there didn’t you Danny, from a sports centre changing room to deadly combat on an ancient battlefield! Easy for you to talk of an honourable death at the hands of a Spartan onslaught…..while sipping your flat white at the warm local cafe. For the readers of my last post I was in here catching up with a mate 😉

The point I’m trying to make is that pressure is self constructed, we invent it ourselves. That’s not to say I don’t feel it, I definitely do. The feelings are so very real, as real as the feelings of thirst or hunger. I think that once I realised, that regards to sporting performance, it was what I was telling myself that created the pressure then I began to be able to deal with the fear, that will always be there to some degree, a bit better. “You have to win, you’re sacrificing so much for this, you have to win……he’s better than you, you have to fight him hard if you want to be in with a chance……. this is the big event you’ve been training for, you have to win…….he’s left handed, you struggle with left handers…..they’ve come to watch you, you can’t lose…”

danny williams judo

After competing at the London Olympics and therefore becoming an Olympian I realised that it hadn’t changed anything. As great as the experiences were it was still the same Danny in the mirror. I think I learned from all of that that success doesn’t change what’s inside; surroundings might change, financial situation might look different but the person inside remains the same, warts, insecurities and all. For moving forward I realised, most of the time, that winning on a Judo mat wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of life. That helped me to quieten that voice in my head telling me that I HAD to win, that I wasn’t good enough if I didn’t. It also helped me tackle those other voices that may creep in, “if you don’t win this contest you’re going to drop out of the Olympic qualification zone.”

It began to get easier to just focus on the vital and most important things; the first grip, the next attack, the next exchange. The contest itself. If I don’t concentrate on the contest then there is no way of getting what I want, the win. Paradoxically, think about winning and winning becomes less likely. It is what highly successful American Football coach, Bill Walsh, called ‘the process.’ 

danny williams judo

I found those negative things much easier to dispel when I understood that my self worth wasn’t at all tied to how I could perform in a Judo contest. I like the word perform, in someways I learn how to ‘act’ correctly in training then go out onto to the stage (contest area) to perform what I’ve learned and practiced. The performer is just a small part of me that I send out there and not a reflection on who I am as a whole…… I’m far worse 😉

In the last few years the weight cut to hit 73kg began to leave me still somewhat physically depleted, especially for first round contests. I tried to combat this by fighting as tactically as I could to conserve energy. However, I still feel that I fought as well as I could have; I brought the best I could each time. I never felt that nerves or my self talk hindered me. Nervousness is always there, in everyone, all the great champions included. Dr. Paul Thagard suggests that anger is just fear shown publicly. Are those pumped up people in the warm up room trying to escape the fear that way? Jonathon Edwards used his religion to accept that it was God, not he that controlled what happened when he jumped, freeing him from the feeling of having to control the day and helping him to “just do it.” No, Nike doesn’t sponsor this blog. 

Fear. We use the term ‘nerves’ to make it sound less cowardly to ourselves but, it is simply, fear, and it is vital to sporting performance. It keeps us alert. Boxing coach, Cus D’Amato said, “Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you; it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you’re in the dark and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you.” Effectively, fear will always be there, the difference is in the experience to be able to contain and use it or, to allow it to consume and destroy.

I found when I said the right things to myself, handled the fear that was there and stayed calm, it became something like what was said in the film 300, about the Spartans…….I’m half way through that flat white…….. that “it wasn’t fear that gripped (dominated) him, more a heightened sense of things.” The perfect state for performing at ones best.  

danny williams judo