How do I keep from psyching myself out on race day? —Laura, Durham, North Carolina
This is an amazing question to start with—acknowledging performance anxiety is the first step to gaining control over it. To understand how to overcome race-day (and race-week) nerves, it’s key to zoom out and look at performance psychology.
A 2017 article in the Journal of Sports Medicine took a deep dive into sport-related anxiety and provides a theoretical basis for understanding race-day nerves. First, realize that it’s normal. That article quotes hockey star Sydney Crosby as saying, “I don’t think you’re human if you don’t get nervous.” Breaking stigma in your own brain is an essential goal at the outset.
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The next step is grouping it together with mental health more generally. A little bit of nerves could actually improve performance; a lot of anxiety could be debilitating, and not just in sport performance. Just like with other facets of mental health, talking to a mental health professional could be helpful for many athletes.
Short of mental-health treatment, after recognizing the issue, the next step is to gain power over it. There are tons of methods in psychology that vary by the person, but one great option is to practice positive psychology. A 2011 article in the World Journal of Sport Sciences even called for a new field based on positive psychology in sport performance.
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The end goal of that practice can vary. For athletes I coach, including top professionals, the goal is to reach a point of unconditional self-acceptance and love (often including working with a mental-health professional). An athlete might write down, “I am enough, no matter what,” then follow that up with affirmations or mantras he or she can use in training and racing.
On top of that, it can help some athletes to think about what they are actually fearful of. Often, it’s “failure” or “pain” or “humiliation.” Through positive psychology, it’s possible to flip the narrative. Failure can be a friend that adds richness to life, pain a teacher that helps you grow, humiliation a manifestation of a lack of unconditional self-acceptance. The end goal is to gain power over self-judgment, understanding it’s OK to care, but not to define your self-worth based on races … or anything else. Because, after all, you are perfect the way you are.