Some of you may know Gwyn, she trains in the morning and has attended some of the Fourth Friday events. I asked her to do a guest post on Performance Psychology as we prepare for the OktobeRun (sign up here). She nailed it, all levels of athletes can learn something from this post.
Many amateur athletes (and some professionals) compete while at the mercy of their emotions. Some get overexcited and jittery, squandering their precious energy on an adrenaline rush that gives out just after the race begins. Others find their confidence eroded by negative thoughts or incessant worrying. Others can’t get “up” enough to perform at their physical best. Or, they are so laid back that they don’t bother to organize for race day, and they arrive in a rush, often ill equipped and sapped of both mental and physical energy. Who wants to spend race day nauseous, running to the bathroom every other minute, or harassed by a negative inner monologue? Let’s talk about the most common causes of competitive anxiety, and how you can prevent, reduce or at least effectively manage them. While these tips are directed towards those running in the OktobeRun and, in particular, any of the MDSoF participants who are new to athletic competition, I am sure you will find these tips useful while preparing for any competitive event.
The lowest hanging fruit of the competitive anxiety tree are, ironically, physical. All the fancy pre-race visualization and positive self-talk we will cover later are useless if you wake up late, don’t eat/drink enough and forget your lucky visor. Your cup must be empty Grasshopper before you fill it with the “Good Stuff.” Seriously, make the best and most consistent effort you can, especially the week before, with your training, nutrition, mobility and sleep. The better physically prepared you are, the better experience you will have, no matter what your goals.
Here are five things to do the week before the race:
- Pre-load on sleep: unless you are so calm that you don’t have a pulse, you will sleep like sh** the night before the race. Commit to getting a boatload of sleep each weeknight before the race. Then, if on Friday night you find yourself wide awake with your mind racing, you can reassure yourself that at least you are starting with a full tank.
- Pre-race course recon: several days before the race, walk or run the entire course. No one likes surprises, and the visuals will make your highlight reel that much more realistic.
- Pre-race routine: figure out how long you will need to drive to the location, park (don’t forget change for the meter!), walk to the event, and find a place to stash your stuff. Add 10 minutes just in case. Figure out how long it will take you to warm up, mobilize, and be truly ready to start at 100% intensity. Add another 10 minutes… just in case.
- Pre-race packing: the night before, pack everything you will need for race day in one bag. Clothes, shoes, roller, food, food storage, sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, good luck charm, whatever. Make a list of everything you have to do before you leave in the morning (get food from fridge, fill water bottle, feed cat). This frees your subconscious mind to relax and focus on performance, not storing pesky little details. It also means your performance-focused mind will not forget the pesky little details, leaving you without your food or water at the race (and your cat really pissed off at home).
- “What could possibly go wrong?” Try to predict, prevent and prepare. Could it rain? Bring a slicker. Could your shoelace break? Bring an extra set. Could you trip and scrape your knee? Bring a first aid kit. Could wild hippos escape from the zoo and run amok on course? Bring… you’re on your own.
After addressing the basics, most competitive anxiety or “nerves” stem from either expectation or fear. Expectations create pressure – often entirely self-inflicted – and pressure creates anxiety. Fear is different: it is pure emotion, impervious to logic, and can be fear of the unknown, or of the all-too-well-known. A novice is more likely to be fearful of the unknown, but can also be afraid of pain, injury or embarrassment. We can alleviate the anxiety caused by expectations and fear, through strategic goal setting, a few simple mental techniques, and thoughtful pre-race preparation.
For the novice competitor, the quality of the overall experience is of the utmost importance. What defines “quality” is entirely individual, and is based solely on each person’s goals, temperament, and history. Therefore, the most important preparation is to decide what kind of experience you want to have. Then you can identify steps that will create and support this experience.
In deciding what type of experience you want to have, think first about your motivation: WHY are you doing this?
Some common motivations for novice competitors:
- I want to do something new/different
- I’ve never done a race before and am curious about it
- I wonder if I can finish a race of this distance
- Signing up for a race will help me stick to my fitness plan
- My friend talked me into it/I’m part of a team
- I’m raising money for a good cause (Team in Training, etc.)
- I am looking for a challenge and a feeling of accomplishment
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a “bad” or “invalid” motivation, unless it’s “I don’t want to do this but so-and-so is holding a gun to my head.” It’s important to be very clear about your internal motivation, because that is the true source of your strength. External motivation (“My parents want me to,” “Coach says I’m gifted and should do this,” or “Everyone else is doing it”) will evaporate when the task becomes sufficiently challenging.
See you tomorrow for setting product and process-oriented goals.
Gwyn Gordon has coached equestrians for 20 years, including private clients and the Stanford Equestrian Team. In her nearly 40 years of competing, she has had firsthand experience with every possible performance psychology blunder. As a coach, one of her greatest pleasures is helping others learn to thrive and excel under the pressure of competition.