See the photo for this blog? That’s me in the final at the Sydney Olympics. The photo is too small to tell, but if you can see my eyes, I look like a deer in the headlights, scared to death. When I saw this photo for the first time, it was literally painful. We all know how that race ended. You may have noticed that a big theme of my memoir is the secret anxiety I seemed to constantly face, especially in racing situations, so I thought I would write a little about it to perhaps provide some lessons learned now that I tend to understand my sometimes frustrating past much better. If this assists you, wonderful, it served its purpose.
I recently heard a coach say essentially that during a race, just block out any negative thoughts, otherwise, you won’t run to your full potential. I mean I guess this is possible for some, maybe, but in my experience, it sounds great on paper, but in practice, is this reality? I think it may be realistic when you are in kick ass shape, confident as hell, and the inevitable pain starts to kick in, but what about when things are a little messier, conditions are not so optimal for success?
A few important points on how to effectively combat race anxiety:
- Preparation: If you have been training properly, you have experienced good results in practices and training runs. This breeds confidence. When you know you’re ready for a race, those little anxiety voices tend to be drowned out. The pain doesn’t seem so bad. When you’re not prepared, this is the easiest way to bring on anxiety and regardless of how much you try to block it out, good luck. Successful practices are crucial to successful racing.
- Keep your expectations realistic: We always tell our 10-year-old daughter before she competes in whatever competition or practice, “Don’t worry about winning, scoring a goal, setting a personal best…..just do your best.” Sounds corny, but it’s true, and effective. Regardless of level, when it all comes down to it, that’s all you can do, and let the chips fall where they may. If you’re in less than ideal fitness or banged up a bit, keep those expectations in order. Ramping up expectations, which can be self-imposed or created from others around you, can serve as the kiss of death on race day. In fact, if you’re not good to go, not 100%, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to skip this race, and wait for the next one. Don’t set yourself up for failure. There’s always another race.
- Take control: Have a voice / communicate. Ah, my greatest racing flaw. Back in my day especially, we were trained to never show our weakness. My coach would always say, “I don’t coach sissy runners”. I remember on multiple occasions not wanting to race on race day, wanting to be somewhere else, going so far as wishing my leg could just be broken. Obviously I had some pretty severe anxiety issues and not the healthiest of brains, but you get the idea nonetheless. If you’re not ready to go, if you’re not 100% confident, don’t be afraid to tell a coach, a parent, a friend, a teammate. To me, anything but a sign of weakness, but a total sign of strength. What a relief of pressure to let it out. Bottling it in is so unhealthy.
- Sports Psychologist / medication: This isn’t necessarily a last resort like it once was considered. There wasn’t much of this going on back in my day. I recall seeing a sports psychologist for the first time after my fall in Sydney in 2000. I was hesitant to go, saw it as a sign of weakness, etc. I’m embarrassed to say I had always thought in my mind, I’d never see a psychologist. That was not for me. Denial, ignorance, pride? All of the above. Point is, all athletes looking for best performance should have a sports psychologist on their team. I’m happy to see how commonly they are used these days and the stigma of using one being basically eliminated.
- Diet: Did you know that sugar can increase your anxiety level? I remember on many an occasion violating this one. In fact, I can recall nervously chugging Coca-Cola after Coca-Cola just before my race at World Championships in Athens in what I think was 1997. It wasn’t until around 2001 when I worked with a nutritionist for the first time who was mortified when he saw my diet. Again, things have changed for athletes these days as diet is prioritized so much more these days. But just something to consider in case you are putting away sugar before races. Eat healthy, race better.
- Sleep / or lack there of before a race: If you’re not sleeping before a race, it’s certainly another sign that you may need to pay more attention to the anxiety issue, whether it be through a psychologist, or personally addressing what might be triggering the stress. We all know how important rest / sleep are before a race. Make sure you put yourself in a position where a good night’s rest becomes a given for you.
Take it from a girl who did not exactly have the mental aspect of racing down pat. Learn from my mistakes, and you should be a more content, more successful runner / athlete. I’ll get into this in further detail in future blogs since we all know, the mental game is just as important as the physical.