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. But because I'm me, here's some of my thoughts 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 a little bit 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 asleep.
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. There are many reasons that people do this, but one of these is simply habit and this is where the visualization exercises during training, comes into play. 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 the event. 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 intense 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! 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 clinics, are built around this premise: run for joy. 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 pursuit of greatness, or it would have to live within me, unempowered.
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, learning to deal with your fear in sports is not about being fearless. Very few people are truly fearless, and it’s actually sort of psychotic to be fearless, if you think about it. 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 being brave! Having courage is about knowing fear and being ready to endure it. Once I knew my fears 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 being brave, small acts of personal bravery and courage build resilience and self-esteem. 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.
I have trust in my integrity, my training and my ability; I have confidence and reliance.
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 –that place somewhere in the late stages of a race 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 stride. In my most flawless races, I bring massive trust of my own ability. I trust that my body will perform, I trust my confidence will not falter, and I trust that it will simply all work out.
Practice trust, and...
Run For Joy – Lucy Smith
This year I am running the TC 10K. After twenty plus years of racing the event as a competitive athlete, and elite master, this year I am entering the race non competitively, as the race Ambassador. My goal is to run 50 minutes, to pace as evenly as possible using only a watch, and to raise as much as I can for the BC Cancer foundation, one of the official charities.
Most people want to run faster. This year I am going to attempt to just run slower. At the peak of my career I used to shoot for a 3:15/km pace (33 minute 10K). This year, I am going to shoot for 4:59 (just under 50 minutes for 10K). Just like at my fastest, I am going to run with only my watch. No HR monitor, no GPS (I have to make it a little challenging!).
The way I see it, at 50 minutes, I get to run with a LOT of people, which is going to be fun and I get to run for another 20 minutes along the streets of Victoria on a Sunday morning.
I welcome people to run with me; I am an excellent pacer and if you run with me, I’ll probably throw some encouragement your way, because that is what I love to do!
Why am I doing this? Because I want to do something to help Cancer research and care in BC. Every year I support the Cops for Cancer and watch them ride through my community, and I attend the KidsRun in May, which raises so much money for kids battling cancer, and their families.
In May of 2016 I flew to Nova Scotia and ran with my childhood best friend Laura, in the Bluenose 10k. We ran 50 minutes and it was huge feat for Laura, who was battling stage 4 lung cancer at the time. Laura passed away that October – I learned so much about life, from Laura, in those few short months she survived. She was a beautiful funny human being, our birthdays were only days apart at the end of April, and I will always miss her.
As the 6 time winner of this event, I have very strong emotional ties to the TC 10K – this race was a cornerstone of my spring season every year and the race supported me in my elite career as a distance runner, with prize money and validation for my striving for excellence, for which I will always be grateful. Now, at the age of 51 (I turn 52 the day before the race), I am hoping that my pacing will help a few folks through to their own excellence on race day, and support people who can’t run due to the effects of cancer.
I feel so grateful for my health and my career in sport and will continue to support, motivate and inspire those who are in pursuit of their own excellence - I have set up my donation page in Racer Roster for those who want to support me in my goal of raising $5052.00
Thank you for taking the time to read this, thank you for your donations and see you on race day!
Run For Joy – Because You Can!
As a coach who often puts the emphasis on practice and process, I still get curious about our need to set big goals, and the sense of satisfaction that arises from the grit and hard work of accomplishment. Author, Stephen Handle writes, “One often overlooked need we share is a “need for achievement” – this is our desire for significant accomplishment, mastering of skills, or achievement of high expectations. We don’t have to be good at everything to be happy, but we usually like to be good at something. We all crave a type of passion, skill, or talent that we can excel at and rise above the norm. It helps us define ourselves as individuals. A healthy need for achievement isn’t about becoming better than others, it’s about becoming better than your previous self. It’s about identifying a goal you want to reach in life and being willing to put in the necessary steps to make it happen”.
Any of you who are currently training for something, will identify with this.
Creating and experiencing a flow or a peak performance (an achievement) is one of the greatest joys of being an athlete and is one of the most satisfying aspects of my coaching. Observing someone succeed is pretty much a manifestation of what’s awesome about sport.
While time management and training is primarily about carving out time, choosing to train, and setting a schedule, time management is also about seeing possibility and not getting railroaded by your own barriers to success and achievement.
Here are 5 of the most common barriers to time management and achievement and how to identify and overcome them:
1. Lack of motivation to train
An inability to get training done leads to low morale, and lack of momentum in training habits and an inability to get stronger. Some people have no trouble getting out the door, while others do. If you are the latter, the best is to keep your mind out of it (“Do I want to train right now” is not a good question for you), and just set up a schedule and stick to it. Schedules create habit and good habits create positive momentum.
There are 5 key things that will help you:
1. Plan when the workout is going to happen---preferably on a weekly, not daily basis—plug them into calendars on Sunday.
2. Organize your equipment so you are always prepared
3. Eat and sleep to support your training.
4. Decide how you are going to talk to yourself in training before you start. Decide to delete the negativity. You don’t even have to be overly positive. Be OK with neutral.
5. Celebrate your recovery day because you have worked so hard and deserve it.
Watch for ways you may repeatedly talk yourself out of doing well. Also called negative self-talk, this is going to the negative as a default and an inability to appreciate the good things that can happen in training. Sometimes the negative happens - we make a mistake that’s correctable, or something out of our control negatively affects and outcome in training. In this case, recognizing the negative is important, and accepting and using the experience to become better is a good thing. Moving on quickly is important. However, only looking for the negative, or talking and reflecting on training in absolutes and generalized statements may not be helpful.
‘It was a terrible workout, the worst ever. What a tough pill to swallow and I am wondering if it was my new shoes, the jacket I was wearing, maybe the food I had for lunch, and if I am really just not that good at this.’
If this is a consistent way of talking to yourself, it means that you may just have trouble being good to yourself and it’s a habit to look for everything that went wrong, instead of what may have gone right and what you can improve on to expect success in the future. If you have this habit, you may want to talk in ‘fact’ not ‘feeling’. You can ask yourself: what went well and what didn’t go so well. No judgement, just acceptance and intention. While learning from experience is always a good thing, being able to take away and appreciate that good things happen every time you go out and train is a valuable exercise in self-esteem and intrinsic joy. I often ask people to find one thing to pat themselves on the back for in every race and training session. I don’t mean getting carried away with big HIGH Fives and celebrations - keep it humble and appreciate your small efforts that worked out.
3. Nervousness and Anxiety
Nervousness and anxiety causes muscle tension which is not the optimal state for athlete performance. Being able to perform relaxed is the biggest challenge for most athletes. Being relaxed and calm emotionally can have a huge impact on how your body reacts to intensity. The self perpetuating spiral of (confidence + self-belief + being relaxed) = success is one of upward movement.
Worry can be debilitating, anxiety can stun us, so it’s best to recognize worry early, not ignore. Worriers can be highly creative and imaginative people, and if asked about their worries, will often talk about things in the future that are either highly unlikely to happen or outside of their control. Or they allow other things to displace the worry and derail the race, such as not going to the race because the weather is bad.
Sport Performance worry can be tamed by recognition, relaxation, and visualization.
Name that thought: there is that worry feeling again. Notice and don’t judge. Then ask yourself a question: can I take action to help me? If you are worried about having enough calories before your training night, this requires one action: make sure you have calories. If it’s not something you can take action with (it might snow), you don’t have to analyze it. Worried about performance? Start with the facts, not expectations: only you know how well prepared you are physically and what you are realistically capable of. Once you know what’s reasonable to expect, use a visualization technique to see yourself performing this task well. Expectations that aren’t realistic can breed worry and future disappointment. You can sidestep this stress by performing reality checks on your expectations.
Relax and breathe and focus: breathe deeply. Breathe the worry out and away.Worry and anxiety is best helped by recognition, and then focusing on process, process, process. Things you can control: breathing, arm swing, footstrike, relaxation
Visualize: How do you see your happiest most prepared self? How do you want to feel. Use you imagination to your benefit: imagine the best case scenario.
4. Dealing with Distractions
We have all watched great athletic moments and achievements and seen the look of total concentration and flow on the face of the athlete. They look determined but also unflappable. They know that when something is not relevant to the outcome of the race, they will not give it energy. Through careful training, they have learned to ignore distractions. For example, for years, I have run at our well loved trail Elk and Beaver Lake in Victoria. This is a multi use trail and I expect to see other walkers, runners, dogs, bikes, and horses. I expect that some of these other users may cause me to veer, swerve, slow down, stop, or otherwise shift my momentum, however, I allow none of these distractions to shift my focus. Instead, I purposely practice keeping focus, while staying safe, and not allowing judging thoughts to arise, especially if I am performing some training with intensity.
Distraction control starts in training, by identifying when you are habitually getting distracted and then teaching yourself a new habit - techniques to re-focus. It starts with awareness, then quickly learning to identify the distraction without judgement, then, just as quickly, to re-focus on your process.
There is no greater personal power, than to not allow others to disrupt our flow. In that regard, distraction control is also a powerful choice:
Say you get cut off by a dog and have to break stride. You have a split second to make a choice to either get mad, upset and emotional, or move on and refocus. Anger in that moment will not help, will cause tension and tension is detrimental to peak performance. Your choice.
5. Non-productive emotions
Anger, fear, worry, boredom, frustration are not productive in the training and racing environment. The most consistently successful athletes have a refined and specific focussed emotional mindset that works over and over for them. They bring it to practice again and again and they race in this same mindset, leaving non-productive emotions for another time. I am not saying to minimize your feelings, however, in the athletic arena, you may want to focus on a specific mind set that works for you.
A final note on fear. I believe that the path to any achievement is necessarily going to include some fear. New territory is a bit scary. However, heading straight into what we find uncomfortable and finding it not so scary after all - but invigorating - is an amazing learning. The repetition of being brave, small acts of personal bravery and courage build resilience and self-esteem. Every time you show up to practice even though you are a little scared, this is what builds character. You recognize that working through personal fear and finding space for it, alongside building skills and confidence: this is the true beauty of sport. It all comes down to choosing the path with ‘heart’. If your heart is in it, there is no failure, only experience.
Run For Joy
Lucy Smith March 2019
As a coach, I love to support and learn from observing how other people have their own experience in sport, while giving them the foundational skills to find that experience and the opportunity to touch on their potential. It’s the same kind of philosophy I have in parenting.
For instance, when my children wanted to climb trees, I sometimes helped them find trees that were within their ability and size (I would find trees that had lots of good branches and branches low enough for them to get up on their own.) I would ensure they had the right footwear to climb trees, then give them some skills – staying close to the trunk, making sure you can have 3 points touching at all times, test your footing – and then I would let them have their own experience climbing the tree. I tried very hard not to colour their experience with my own fears (of them falling), or how high they should go. Most children, when given the chance to take reasonable risks, have a good sense of their own limitations and the only way for them to learn is to learn free of judgement.
In running and most of sport, the moments of truth come when we ask ourselves to go faster, longer, acquire a new skill and move out of comfort. I can’t make anyone do any of these things. I can provide the knowledge around skills and can choose the environment that supports them, and then I stand and watch the magic happen.
If you are ready to take on the challenge of going a little faster this season, here is a primer on executing a great training session.
Get excited! This means that you come to the session ready to give best effort and having made the decision to have a good day. You are not coming to ‘wait and see what happens’. As a coach, I call this ‘training like you mean it’. It means arriving early, prepared, with positive energy, standing tall and being in an engaged frame of mind.
Warm up well
Do 10-15 minutes of light warm up running or walking. After the warm up do some dynamic stretching such as leg swings and arm circles, and stretch out body areas that feel tight. Before the intervals, do a set of run drills and strides. Drills and strides activate the muscle fibres fully for training and create mental preparedness. Strides are 10 seconds of fast dynamic running or walking, at the pace you will hit in the intervals but not your all out speed. You should be able to be relaxed and hold perfect form for the stride. Walk or jog for 30 seconds between stride efforts.
Attempt to pace the whole workout evenly; that means maintaining the same speed throughout the intervals and being mindful of energy to be able to complete the whole set. Your effort will need to increase and you should have to focus with concentration as the set goes on: this is to be expected. Begin each interval with a burst of dynamic running or walking, pumping arms and legs to get up to pace, but not sprinting. After a few seconds relax into pace and check that you are breathing well and staying relaxed in the upper body. Allow your mind to focus only on moving well. Be aware of your goal effort and tune into this pace. You can keep this as a sense of internal or perceived effort, and/or use a device that will show heart rate, speed and distance covered. Over time you will learn more about your own effort and pace.
Once you have gained expertise in pacing and effort, commit to the pace and discomfort of the interval, not relenting at the first sign of fatigue. This sense of discipline to ‘hold strong through discomfort’ is best honed in practice and creates emotional fortitude for the stress of race day. The more you practice this, the better you get.
Learn where the half way section of every interval is and focus on that second half, maintaining rhythm and attention to the body. As you fatigue, put emphasis on your biomechanics, keeping tall posture, being graceful, relaxed in shoulders, face and torso. Think intently about forward momentum and doing a good job.
Finish it off
Be strong right through the finish of every interval, resisting the urge to give up even a second early. This is another example of small ways you can be constantly mentally tweaking your game. Keep moving. Shake out the arms, exhale deeply, walk or jog lightly for 10-15 seconds to facilitate lactic acid dispersal. Walk and jog between intervals. Keeping the legs moving helps your blood move through the body for the recovery and prepares you for the next interval. Resist the urge to rush impatiently into the next interval.
Sports Psych 101
Mentally prepare for the next interval by letting go of the one you just did and only focussing on breathing, relaxing and the one coming up. Notice if you have thoughts or habits of negative self-talk (`That was not fast enough`), or a ‘fail to succeed’ (`I can’t hold this pace for the set`) mentality very common in athletes.
During my career as a high performance athlete I must have repeated “C’mon Lucy, be tough!” about a million times to myself. It never got old.
Focus on one goal at a time
As you approach the next interval, decide to do the next one well, at least as good as the one you just did, and even find a way to make it better. Find one goal for each interval.
Right before the start of the interval, shake out your legs and arms, take several deep breaths and focus your mind. Practice taking a quiet mind into each interval.
If you can achieve this, you will have fleeting moments of being in the ‘zone’, a space where direct judging thoughts cease and your concentration is like a light beam only on the act of moving.
At the end of a set of high effort work, jog and walk for another 5 minutes, take some water if needed, and then do a very gentle and easy jog for at least 10 minutes. Stretch now or make time to stretch later, as this may greatly reduce your chance of injury.
Using these guidelines, come up with your own smooth successful training routine. Soon your speedy sessions will translate into superior fitness, mental fortitude and great races.
Training with integrity: the opportunity to practice mindfulness, create better health for ourselves, be compassionate to others, and reach a little higher in our lives.
Run For Joy!
Lucy Smith, March 2019
insight into what sustains personal excellence and motivates us to achieve