Pre-Race Nerves...and How to Manage Them
For years, I’ve battled pre-race anxiety. As in many other areas of life, the most difficult part is sometimes getting to the start line.
I’ll be totally honest, my exploration of the pre-race nerves goes deeper than fixing myself.
I am no expert on this topic. My motivation is rooted in helping my children get to adulthood with more tools than I had early on. I see it in them already — that budding anxiety they now are able to communicate.
When we were at Tour of the Gila criterium, signing them up for the kid’s race, you’d think I’d asked them to jump off a cliff. They looked deadly serious about riding down to the orange cone and back, and I thought to myself, “Is this a monster I’ve created?” Sometimes doing what we love is scary, even for a 7-year old.
This problem is bigger than me, and like I said, I don’t have it all figured out yet. I’m not a sports psychologist; I just know it affects a lot of people, many of whom I love and respect. I’m committed to figuring out how to make it better — and hopefully help as many as I can along the way.
From what I’ve experienced, anxiety is a double edged sword:
On one side: there’s an expectation that hard work SHOULD pay off.
Whether you’re a pro or a complete beginner, you’ve done something credible that got you to a start line: you’ve put in the hours, woken up early, gone that extra mile in training…maybe lost some weight. You now have an expectation, that because you made an investment of time and resources, this event owes you something in return. That’s not a healthy state of mind.
And on the flip side of the sword: there’s a lot at stake — you have something to lose.
It’s hard NOT to care what others think about us. You might damage your reputation if you don’t do well. Maybe you want to be picked up by a team…or you’re gunning for a PR. Some people are nervous about the danger element of crashing. Maybe you fear putting yourself out there only to fail.
I’d been applying my resources to removing anxiety, and one day it clicked…maybe understanding anxiety starts with flipping the playbook upside-down! So….
Let’s Get Anxious!
Getting nervous is actually a very simple one-step process…
Step 1: Care about what you’re doing!!
Imagine an activity in your life that holds no anxiety over you. Personal example for me: cooking. I really can’t imagine any place or time where I’ve felt pressured about cooking a meal. It’s a means to an end for me. I’m hungry, therefore I make food to eat.
But I really, REALLY care about bike racing. I invest time, money, blood, sweat, and tears.
It’s key to understand WE ONLY GET NERVOUS WHEN WE CARE — and that’s actually GOOD. Because then we can learn to use that understanding toward creating positive energy.
So now that we know being nervous is simply a coping mechanism of caring deeply, let’s dig into how to reframe this in our minds and bodies from “anxiety” to “excitement”.
How I act on the start line:
How I really feel:
Can you relate?!
It doesn’t have to be a start line. Maybe for you, it’s a work presentation or a piano recital.
5 ways I’ve learned to cope with “start line” anxiety:
1) Interrupt disruptive thought patterns with movement.
When you sense that “freak out” feeling clutching your throat…MOVE. Do something physical. Funnel that amped up energy into something positive. Literally — dance, shake, laugh, huddle with your teammates, do a plank. Just change up your brain patterns with physical movement so you can direct energy into serving your goals.
Think about Ellen Degeneres. She does that pre-show dance that everyone loves. I watched her do it one day, and it dawned on me…maybe she’s shaking off anxiety by dancing to get into the moment! Even the best public speakers, politicians, and athletes deal with nervousness. Some have just learned to harness it for their benefit using these tools.
A lot of times the best thing I can do for myself when I feel nervous, is go and pedal around on my bike. When I’m on my bike, I just feel better. Movement.
My old pattern was to get really quiet and into myself when I felt nervous. I would often be an emotional wreck inside before a race. Basically, my brain was waving the white flag to my body:
— that’s not what you want to feel when you’re about to go full tits!
Even if your palms are sweaty and your heart rate is 120bpm at the start line, keep repeating, “I’m excited!” Smiling is a movement, as well, and your body will follow.
2) Tell Someone Who Believes In You, and Report Back Often
For years I pretended like, “I got this,” and was like Emmett in the Lego picture…”Everything is Awesome!”
But it wasn’t awesome. I was a ball of nerves, and when my team needed me, or I was the key player for the win, often times I couldn’t perform my best because my energy had already dissipated…
Fumes of anxiety don’t provide winning energy.
This past year, I started talking to people and found I was not the only one who felt performance anxiety. In fact, almost EVERYONE FEELS IT. We just don’t talk about it!
This is not the time to act the badass. When you do admit where you’re fearful, people come around you and help you become stronger in those trying moments.
3) Disgust. Then Gratitude.
That sounds crazy, right…but you won’t fix broken patterns until you’re disgusted enough to make a change.
For me…I hit rock bottom last year (which I’ve already written about in other blogs) and that was my impetus for change. I was tired of the way I treated myself, the way I would mentally ruin my chances before I even got started. I wanted to experience cycling in a different way — but that doesn’t morph on it’s own. In fact, it didn’t change until I got mad about it and committed to do something differently.
After disgust comes gratitude. Once I defined WHY I’m racing in the first place, I find grateful for the things the bike has taught me…what the people around me have taught me. I write this down over and over again — why I’m doing what I do, and how it makes me feel grateful. You can’t be truly grateful and full of anxiety at the same time.
4) Create Your Own Process…When No One Else Is Watching.
Sounds simple enough, but this might be the hardest one! Commit to yourself to go through a process unrelated to performance. If you leave a race unhappy with the way you felt beforehand, break it down and do some homework when you’re not in the public eye. Figure out what steps you’ll take…then TAKE THEM. Work harder than ever…
But not with more intervals!
Do the real digging, the peeling yourself apart…the nitty-gritty stuff no one else can do for you.
Prove to yourself you can go through your process when no one else is watching. That’s where you build and refine belief in yourself.
5) Journal and Organize
If you struggle with performance anxiety, your best way of catching the negative trends and replacing them is to write things down. If you can organize your thoughts on paper, you will begin to see common threads of how you treat yourself and the things you’re expecting. Are those things realistic…are you result-focused or process-focused?
Also organize your life to make the “peripheral” things as easy as possible. Pin your number on the night before. Prep your bottles and your nutrition. Service your bike more than a day before. No excuses. Excuses lead to feeling more anxious.
I have a packing list of things when I travel, from race pins to sunscreen to my rain jacket. I am the queen of flying by the seat of my pants, but this small step of organization helps me keep my cool when I feel the race nerves sneaking up.
Can you relate to pre-race anxiety?
Take my 3 second survey! (Don’t worry, it’s anonymous)
I just did Tour of the Gila and experienced significantly reduced pre-race anxiety than in years prior, using the 5 tips above. It’s one thing for me to say, “I’m better!” so I asked for a second opinion from my husband, Ernie.
I asked if he could really tell a difference. Here’s what he said:
“The way you walked, even the way you carried your body before the race, all of it was significantly changed from years before. You used to walk around with the weight of the world on your shoulders, and this time, you didn’t clam up and you weren’t nearly as self-critical. You looked at what you could fix each day with the excitement of wanting to put more hard work in, not as a downer. You smiled a ton more and seemed to have more fun.”
Also important to note, I didn’t magically have the best results of my life, either. These aren’t genie in a bottle tactics. I didn’t practice these items and mystically land on the podium. But I didn’t expect to.
So…baby steps, friends.