There is a good chance that you will feel nervous before a big effort, or a race. Don’t waste your energy trying to make this nervousness go away. Say hello to the fact that it exists in you, and accept that it is a part of you. That’s it. Then get on with the event that you have been training for. Focus on what you can do, and trust that you are as ready as you can be. Nerves exist because you are excited about an event going well, and should be seen as a friend, a way that you are getting activated for the event. If this is something totally new for you, there may be some fear of the unknown and this is where courage and fear co-exist. Be afraid and do it anyway. Give it your best effort, the one you have been preparing for weeks for.
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. Performance anxiety can be linked to a sense of worth, as if who we are is on the line, not just how we do.
Nervousness feels like agitation, higher heart rate, a sense that you can’t stay calm, jittery. I was always nervous before big events – the bigger the event, the bigger the nerves, and I 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. Some athletes listen to music in the hours leading up to a race, and others follow strong pre-race rituals, which allows them to stay just calm enough to function to their potential.
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. We are strongly biased to have a negativity bias, and for many people, the feeling that they don’t deserve greatness runs very deep. But this is the power of sport, you can practice slowly changing your mindset through the very practice of training for and performing even a 5 KM event!
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 performing, or racing is a good start.
Fear and Joy
Pretending your goals and dreams are less than they are, or 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.
My favourite quote about fear is 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. 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. The repetition of being brave, small acts of personal bravery and courage build resilience and self-esteem. Every time you show up to practice and events, 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 in what I have done so far.
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 your most flawless races, you bring massive trust of your own ability. You must trust that your body will perform, trust your confidence will not falter, and trust that it will simply all work out.
Run For Joy – Lucy Smith
Writing about the art of moving well and the lived experience of a life in sport.