Do you freak out or geek out before a race? Do the nerves and butterflies that are awash in your system inhibit your success? Do they trigger negative thoughts and self-doubt? If you're like most athletes, the answer is a resounding, "Yes." Those feelings are normal, especially when you engage in habits that involve competition and that take you out of your comfort zone.
You mean we're stuck with nerves and self-doubt forever?
Nerves, yes. It's our prehistoric protection mode to safeguard from danger. Our hormones get to work, triggering cortisol secretion, increased blood sugar, quickened pulse, shallow breathing and possibly even increased sweat. When you view something as overwhelming or scary—a race start—it can engage this fight or flight response.
Ironically enough, we have the same experience when we're legitimately excited about something, such as completing a major race. That fear and anxiety turns into joy, relief and happiness because we did what we set out to accomplish. The race may be over, but hormones still run at full throttle because your body is still physically and emotionally coming down from the stress you placed on it.
The goal isn't necessarily to block out all the thoughts that enter your mind. Instead, acknowledge, observe and let those thoughts pass without judgement.
At this point, your challenge is to reframe those nerves from a potential performance inhibitor to a performance enhancer. You can't squash the nerves, but you can adopt techniques to reframe them.
Treat Your Nerves and Self-Chatter as Non-Judgmental Observations
Much like meditation, the objective of creating space around your incessant mind-chatter is to simply treat it as non-emotional. Being nervous isn't good or bad. It just is, right? Whether you're new to meditation or even if you've been practicing for years, understand that the goal isn't necessarily to block out all the thoughts that enter your mind. Instead, acknowledge, observe and let those thoughts pass without judgement.
Treat your race day chatter or self-diminishing thoughts in the same way. They are simply observations. You may think things like, "The sun is coming up. It's a chilly morning. There are a lot of people here. I'm nervous. I have to warm up." The thoughts become one of many that aren't positive or negative. They're just thoughts and observations that ebb and flow.
Your body has a wonderful way of regulating stress and anxiety. Ever notice how you feel so much more calm and relaxed after a workout, even at a moderate effort? A little movement and sweat releases endorphins that can actually relax you prior to a major event. When your body relaxes so will your mind.
On race morning, plan a warm-up that includes light jogging, warm-up drills, dynamic stretches—anything that might be appropriate for your race. Not only does it stimulate blood flow to the muscles you'll be working, but it releases some much-needed dopamine as well. Even a small increase in heart rate can unlock the gates of that "paralyzed" feeling and decrease some of the anxiety you feel. Instead of feeling trapped in self-doubt, you're telling your body it's go time.