Tonal Coach Kristina Centenari draws on sports psychology principles to better tackle physical—and emotional—challenges.
By Kristina Centenari as told to Karen Iorio Adelson
I had my first panic attack when I was a high school sophomore after losing a tennis match. Back then, I was a very serious, competitive tennis player, and the girl who beat me had a much lower national ranking. After the match, I couldn’t take a deep breath. Nobody could calm me down. It sounds dramatic now, but tennis had been my identity for so long that I felt like my life was over if I couldn’t even win this one match. I was also suffering from a shoulder injury, so I was in physical pain on top of all that.
Panic became a pattern for me as I struggled with a lack of confidence. My anxiety only got worse through high school and college as I continued getting injured. I had to have surgery on my shoulder and two surgeries on my left knee. But fear set my performance back more than the injuries alone could. I went into every match with a little voice telling me I wasn’t good enough.
Everybody deals with self-doubt or performance anxiety in some way, but the good news is you can learn how to thrive and perform better in the face of adversity (I’m living proof!). It took me years to shake that negative voice and build my resilience, but here are the strategies I wish I had known growing up.
If you are so attached to something—like your sport, your job, or your relationship—it becomes really hard to see the bigger picture when that area of your life gets murky. In high school, I would say I’m Kristina, I’m a tennis player. I wanted that to define me. But if you tie your identity to an external label, losing that label will shake your sense of self.
When you’re too invested in a goal, you don’t give yourself space to make a mistake—and if you do make a mistake, it feels like the world is ending. This doesn’t mean you should abandon your passions. It’s about finding a balance. Elite athletes do this beautifully. The top tennis players in the world obviously care about their sport, but they also find this very peaceful space where they’re detached just enough to allow themselves some breathing room.
Feel Your Feelings, But Challenge Your Thoughts
Changing how you think isn’t toxic positivity, and it isn’t magic. The way you look at a situation can actually have physiological effects on your body. In one study, people watched either a video explaining the beneficial effects of stress or a video on stress’s negative consequences. Then, they were put through a simulated stressful event and asked to perform cognitive tasks. The group that was led to believe stress could be positive actually exhibited better cognitive skills and had higher levels of a hormone linked to brain growth. Both groups experienced stress, but the way they thought about that stress differed.
Nothing can stop negative feelings from coming into your head, but you can change your response to them. There’s a difference between your feelings and what you think about those feelings.
I use this strategy now as a runner and triathlete: If I’m feeling tired in the middle of a race, I know that’s normal. But when I start to think, I don’t think I can make it to the finish or I’m not strong enough, that’s a response I can work on and challenge. How you approach something sets the tone for how you handle it. It’s important to be able to sit with your emotions and tell yourself, I am feeling this right now, in the moment, and that’s okay. And then put a period at the end of that sentence before your thoughts and judgments about those emotions spiral out of control. If you change your mindset, you can change the outcome.
All of this is so much easier said than done. It’s literally a practice, and it’s not going to feel perfect right away. That’s one of the reasons why I do all these Ironman races—I’m literally putting myself in the most uncomfortable position I can think of so I can practice what I preach. When I’m on the bike and see a big hill, I know that if I think I’m strong enough to do this instead of I don’t think I can make it up there, the outcome of the climb will be better.
Keep exposing yourself to challenging situations where you can hone these skills in tiny strides. Before you know it, you’ll be able to use some of these tools and resources when you face challenges in everyday life.