You will probably feel nervous before a race. Don’t waste your energy trying to understand, over analyze or kill your fears. Say hello to the fear, and accept that it exists. That’s it. Then get on with the race that you have been training for. Of all the topics I talk about, fear and anxiety pop up a lot, so here is my take on fear, anxiety and courage in sport.
I get asked a lot about how to deal with pre race nerves and anxiousness. I feel that while nervousness and anxiousness sound the same, they are essentially different. Being nervous is a physical sensation caused by thinking about an event. The nervousness can actually be excitement and anticipation, and a sense of agitation that occurs as you get ready for a race – where you know you are going to be asking more from yourself. Performance anxiety feels more rooted in how you are thinking about the future event, and a sense that things may not go well, or as well as you hope. A sense of unease and apprehension best describes that feeling.
Nervousness feels like agitation, higher heart rate, a sense that you can’t stay calm, jittery. I have always been nervous before big events – the bigger the event, the bigger the nerves, and I have learned to manage the nerves by breathing exercises, being positive about the nerves (this means I am excited and that I care about what I am about to do), and by finding space to be by myself in order to calm down and maintain a good balance between being overly stimulated and being ready.
Performance anxiety, on the other hand is more deeply rooted in fear based thinking of ‘what can go wrong’ and ‘am I good enough?’ In these cases, people are using their wonderful brains, to actively imagine the worst things that can happen, instead of the best. Often these athletes are highly imaginative, creative and intelligent, and the trick is to have them learn how to use their brains to envision success in a way that focusses on process not outcome.
There are many reasons that people veer towards anxious thoughts, but one of these is simply habit and this is where the visualization exercises during training, comes into play. During less stressful moments of training, give yourself permission to visualize the best possible outcome. You are not taking anything away from anyone by performing to your best, you are simply adding to the awesome energy of sport experience. It may take several tries to consciously start imagining all the positive things that can happen, and it may feel forced at first, but it works.
Fear is Normal
After being in sport for 40 years, watching athletes every day, racing with them, training with them, travelling with them and coaching them, I can tell you that fear cannot be made to simply disappear. Fear is part of being human, even if the fear is no longer valid for basic survival. Overcoming fear is not about denial and avoidance, it is about awareness and developing skills that work for you. Pretending that fear doesn’t exist means it sits there simmering and when push comes to shove, it will come out roaring with the power of being not only ignored, but neglected. If fear is preventing you from enjoying what you know you can enjoy, then it’s totally worthwhile doing something about it. Facing your fears of racing is a good start.
As an athlete I went on to have my own relationship with fear and courage during my high performance career. I had to conquer very real fears, like how to handle a bike while hurtling downhill at 80 km/hr, or through rain drenched corners, or when riding through the manic streets of Paris. My fear of swimming open water was almost paralyzing at times and brought up the most intense feeling of panic, and helplessness.
I faced these fears out of a combination of desperation and determination and directed habit changing, because they were getting in the way of my goals. My determination to race as a pro meant that I had to figure out how to get past these fears and I put in countless hours of visualization and sheer practice building my skills. I followed the best cyclists downhills, I listened to every coach as they talked me through corners and bike handling skills, I trained in open water as much as I could, and talked myself through every single swim, and I did it over and over and over until my belief in my ability outweighed my fears.
The biggest fears, however, the massive monsters in the room, are the ones that are hard to name, and these are the fears that strike right at the epicentre of our self-worth, and I can assure you, the larger the goal, the larger the fear. If we try to trick fear by downplaying the magnitude of our dreams, it attacks us from a different angle. Pretending your goals and dreams are meaningless (in order to side track fear into taking a back seat) takes away the joy you will receive when you achieve those wonderful goals. To receive the joy, you have to acknowledge the great height of your feeling, and fear is right there with you! My fear came as voices, and taunts, and doubts. ‘You won’t make it.’ ‘Other people are great.’ ‘You’ll never be good enough.’ ‘You should probably get a real job soon.’ ‘Who are you to want so much for yourself?’ I was nervous about racing often, because I was so invested, but the single largest fear was simply feeling like an imposter in a world full of the ‘real deal.’
So, how did I stay in sport so long if I had such negative voices to deal with, such fear running alongside me during every training run, taking the plane with me on every trip to Europe? I learned to work with my fear. I learned that it was going to be there no matter what and I could not make it go away. I took fear with me, but I did not let fear step in and ruin my party.
I loved to run.
I loved the thrill of racing, the excitement and the endorphins.
I loved everything about training and racing, except for the fear.
So, I learned to embrace the joy, because while fear could get in the way of my dreams and my plans, and my goals for myself, fear stood NO chance against my joy. Joy made fear retreat to a corner and sit there silent. Fear never really went away, but as long as I felt joy in what I was doing, it stopped being so annoying. My whole website creativity around the running life and now, my coaching philosophy are built around this premise: Run For Joy. But Run For Joy is also just a metaphor for life. Run for fear only when you are crossing the road and a truck is coming, or if something dangerous is in your path. The rest of the darn time, run for joy. It is intrinsic, it is not about what you achieve or what you win: it is who and what you believe in.
I felt that fear would either derail my personal pursuits, or it would have to live within me, unempowered. And fear and joy simply co exist.
Or my favourite quote about fear by Elizabeth Gilbert: “Let fear come for the road trip, but it has to sit in the back seat and doesn’t get to touch the radio dial, and it certainly cannot drive the car!” (Big Magic)
So, despite the inspirational quotes, learning to deal with your fear in sports is not about being fearless. It’s not about defeating your fear. It’s about knowing your fear (knowing yourself) and having the courage and tenacity to go for it anyway, because your gut feeling is right. It is what you want.
Facing fear, then, is about repeatedly practicing being brave.
Having courage is about knowing fear and being ready to endure it.
Once I knew about my fears of swimming in open water, I could decide how I was going to overcome that particular hurdle. It wasn’t necessarily fun admitting that I was scared, but ultimately it was rewarding. Being able to swim with confidence and focus on racing, unhindered by the rapid breathing and panic that fear was dying to bring into the race, was empowering.
The repetition of small acts of personal bravery and courage builds resilience and self confidence. Every time you show up to practice even though you are a little scared, this is what builds character.
To remind yourself of your ability to put fear in the backseat, hold firmly onto the idea of trust.
My mantra: I have trust in my integrity, my training and my ability.
Read those lines over and over and take that with you into your last weeks of training and definitely onto the start line. I believe the moment of truth for a lot of people –whether it’s those last excruciating moments before the start or that place somewhere in the late stages of an endurance event - when the discomfort is calling so clearly, is a lot about trust. Suddenly, in a flash, our belief in our ability to finish strong falters and then so does our confidence. Practice bringing yourself back to the moment over and over.
In my most flawless performances, I can’t remember the outcome, but I remember this feeling of massive trust of my own ability. I trusted that my body would perform, I trusted my confidence would not falter, and I trusted that it would simply all work out.
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.