I first saw The Anxiety Guy on Mathis “The Kid” Owhadi’s Instagram story. Mathis was going to be talking with Dennis Simsek (The Anxiety Guy) about how Dennis had helped Mathis deal with performance anxiety around the American Ninja Warrior course. While I wasn’t able to tune in, I did catch up with Dennis to learn more about anxiety and what Ninjas (or any athlete, really) can do to calm themselves down before a nerve-wracking competition.
Dennis is a Certified NACBT Life Coach and NLP Master Practitioner who works with a variety of people to end their anxiety and reach their full potential. From the age of 23 to 33, he was a professional tennis player, but “physical injuries, mental health challenges, and funding kept me from achieving the goals I had set for myself,” he told ANWN. It was during that time that Dennis experienced chronic anxiety—debilitating hypochondria and panic attacks that at times, resulted in a trip to the Emergency Room.
One night, Dennis was moments from taking his life, but thankfully, instead decided to change his life and seek the proper treatment for his anxiety. Dennis developed a system that helped him heal, which he now shares with others.
And his tennis career? “I was able to reach my highest tennis ranking as a professional tennis player,” he said. “I no longer played the sport I loved so much with chronic anxiety and panic attacks constantly in the background. Also on a more important note, I’m now the friend, partner, and father I’ve always dreamed of being.”
He also realized his life’s purpose was to help others. “In the beginning stages of ‘The Anxiety Guy’ brand, I was helping many athletes (amateur and professional). This is what came the most natural to me since I was so fresh out of my sport and out of my anxiety disorders,” he explained. “I believe that athletes today find it very difficult to open up about their mental health and emotional distress since it’s depicted as a sign of weakness from themselves as well as from fellow athletes. Pain is strength and inevitable we’re told, so we find ourselves as athletes unconsciously feeling like we must experience some form of pain on a daily basis (many times mental). I was and still am a listener, supporter, guider, and a mentor for athletes because I can relate. And, I can show them at the core of themselves that they don’t have to carry certain limiting beliefs around with them anymore.”
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While people can have generalized anxiety and performance anxiety, Dennis explains what causes athletes anxiety in this way: “An athlete through their vivid imagination can picture an upcoming loss and therefore fear the idea of displeasing their parents or coaches and be struck with tremendous anxiety.”
This can cause them to lose physical capabilities and perform half as well as they’re capable of because “the nervous system doesn’t know the difference between something imagined and something that’s actually happening.” It can also send the athlete in a tailspin and start thinking about other things going wrong, which can “open ups the door to generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and even depression,” Dennis says. “Not always, but many times the perfectionism standard that is projected onto training and performing gets transferred into everything an athlete does. They feel like there is no room for mistakes, and they mustn’t displease their authority figures unless they want to feel like a failure. This can become heavier and heavier for an athlete over time and lead to emotional and physical depletion.”
But as Philip Scott told ANWN after his Cincinnati Finals Run, oftentimes the anxiety goes away as soon as the athlete starts competing. “I was pretty nervous, and I felt pretty weak going into City Finals… Honestly, when the dude went, ‘Five, four, three, two, one, go!’ all of a sudden, I felt normal because Ninja Warrior is what I do all the time,” Philip said. “So that was the one thing that felt familiar to me, away from all the cameras and all the crowds. I could just focus on playing on obstacles, which I love. So I just somehow remembered my game plan for the first half of the course. I remember every second of it…”
Dennis says that this is common. “There is a lot of conscious thinking that goes into the build-up to their respected big event, which is good. But once the event starts, the unconscious part of them takes over and the thinking part takes a back seat. This leads to a natural ability to allow their skill sets to flow out of them in that moment.” But Dennis also cautions that “if an athlete continues to apply conscious thinking during the event they’ll lose their ability to perform at the highest levels that they’re capable of. Being conscious takes up more bandwidth in the brain than being unconscious. So, overthinking not only gets in the way of performing in ’the zone,’ it also overcomplicates things.”
How to calm performance anxiety
Whether you’re a new Ninja or have been competing for a while, it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious. What’s important, though, is trust. “Trusting in your abilities to perform at this level, and faith that the result will be in your favor should you perform at the standard you’ve been practicing at. If you’ve prepared well enough you can let your body do the rest in that crucial moment, your mind will only interfere if you allow it to,” Dennis says.
Dennis also has some wonderful advice for Ninja competitors:
“Firstly I would tell future ANW competitors that they are unique. That they shouldn’t try to be a mold of anyone else and to allow that uniqueness to shine during their runs.
Secondly, I would tell them to put more emphasis on progress over perfection. Progress meaning, to see every practice session and event as an opportunity for personal and professional growth, rather than thinking that this one moment is the only opportunity they’ll ever get. This is a broad look at their ANW careers rather than a narrow one which crushes anxiety when it’s believed and accepted into your heart.
Finally, I’d remind them that they’re doing this for themselves and not anyone else. If it is for the goals and dreams of others they should question why they’re there in the first place. If what you’re about to do is your passion, your dream and no one else’s, let the adrenaline of the moment take over and do what you’ve worked so hard to do over the years and own the moment fully.”