All athletes know it too well. The feeling of unease in your stomach, “butterflies”, your heart is racing…and it is all because of that race looming in the distance. Whether it’s in the weeks, days, hours, or minutes before a race, we have all at some stage felt the pre-race jitters. Some call it nerves. Some call it excitement. If it’s the same feeling, should it matter what we call it? Apparently, yes.
Sport psychology research has shown that athletes who label their “pre-event arousal” as anxiety or nervousness are giving these symptoms a negative connotation and are therefore, treating the race as a threat.
However, if you can somehow shift your mindset so you label this arousal as excitement, they claim that this gives these symptoms a positive connotation and categorises the impending race in your brain as a challenge, not a threat. This research has shown athletes who are facing a challenge tend to perform better, are more confident, and are more resilient than those with a ‘threat’ mindset.
I heard a motivational speaker talking the other day about ‘how to be successful’. He caught my attention because he started speaking about the Rio Olympics, and out of all of the questions journalists asked athletes, he said one was asked every single time: “Were you nervous?” To which they all replied with some variation of: “Not at all, just excited”.
I actually remember being asked that same question and my response was the same as all the others: “Nope, just excited”. And it was honestly true… I was not nervous. I wasn’t scared. I was just focussed and incredibly excited to live out a childhood dream of mine.
However with races on a smaller scale, closer to home, I feel if you asked me the same question “Are you nervous?” there’s a higher chance I’d respond with “maybe a little bit..yeah”. I feel the same pre-event arousal at home as I did at the Olympics, and yet I automatically switch into the “threat” mindset. Nerves rather than excitement.
So how can we train our minds to interpret these pre-event nerves as excitement?
Obviously repeating the mantra “I am excited. Not nervous” over and over may be short-lived and would have limited success rates on its own so I’ve compiled a list of a few different approaches you can try before your next race.
Race Day Routine:
Whenever I am unsure of my race day or race plan, that’s when doubts and negative thoughts seem to creep into my head. However I’ve figured out over the years, the comps where I am most focussed and least “nervous” are the ones that I am fully prepared for (plans for race week, race day, and the race itself).
Having a pre-determined set of actions set in stone, whether it just be your warm up or a whole day-of-race schedule, gives your mind something to focus on so it doesn’t wander into any negative thoughts.
It doesn’t really matter what it is that you’re doing, it’s more the fact that this routine makes you feel good, prepares you for a race, and you’ve practiced it so much that you’re completely comfortable with it.
HOW TO: Try planning a “race day” schedule and practicing it before training a couple of times. It might simply be what you do an hour before you leave, or it could revolve around what you eat on race day/when to rest/when to leave etc..., but just practice it a few times and then give it a go on race day. See whether it helps ease some excess nervous energy!
Don’t Fight It:
One of the most common things people say in response to a nervous athlete is “it just means you care about the race,” which is very true. If you didn’t care about the outcome, you wouldn’t have anxious feelings. However that doesn’t mean you should try to suppress the nerves or anxiety, because that would be subconsciously telling yourself to care less and possibly surmount to an effort of less than 100%. Instead, try telling yourself what you’re feeling is actually excitement, not fear. Re-interpret those feelings as positive ones and you should start to relax and enjoy the process a lot more.
HOW TO: Try finding a positive word or sentence that ignites that feeling of excitement like “opportunity” or “it’s go-time” or it could even just be “I am excited for this race!” and when you are finding it hard to change out of negative nervous thinking – repeat this in your head a few times.
Fake It Until You Feel It:
I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying “fake it until you make it”, well there is actually some truth to it. There has recently been a tonne of research going into physical behaviours and how this affects your thoughts & feelings.
I read a great little experiment online, try this: give yourself an upset frown, lower your chin and slump your shoulders. Cross your arms for added effect. How do you feel? Now, adjust your posture. Sit up straight, pull back your shoulders, and lift your chin. Did you feel a shift in your mind and thoughts?
Lately, when I’ve been warming up for a race I’ve tried this little experiment out and it really does change my mindset.
HOW TO: If you hold your body in confident, strong positions, your mind is likely to follow with confident & strong thoughts. The same way that smiling can stimulate the brain to release dopamine (the happy chemical), holding your body in power poses can affect your testosterone levels which might just give you that winning edge.
The same way we train our muscles. We need to train our minds. It’s unlikely to change overnight and it might not work every time but just remember, next time you think you’re feeling nervous; you could just be excited!