Almost every athlete experiences nerves or heightened feelings leading up to the start of their event. For some, these feelings may be interpreted as adrenaline or energy that can drive performance. For other athletes, it may feel like performance anxiety – worrying about different aspects of the race, about not reaching goals, or about disappointing loved ones. Some athletes may have negative thoughts about their abilities or feel a lack of confidence on race day.
Performance anxiety can negatively affect performance if you aren’t able to slow down and notice it. This kind of anxiety increases your heart rate and blood pressure. It causes poor sleep and appetite, GI distress, and it puts you in a fight-or-flight state. It’s okay to have some pre-race adrenalin, which can physiologically feel similar to anxiety. The main difference is that pre-race adrenalin is not layered with negative self-talk, and it doesn’t inhibit performance. Instead, once you start the race, this energy can drive a strong performance. Performance anxiety becomes a problem when it impacts your ability to focus, race, or rest before competition, or if it stays with you throughout your training and performance.
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How to make performance anxiety work for you
You can channel performance anxiety into something positive that will fuel your race by developing awareness of what you say to yourself about the physical feelings or thoughts you have. As an example, if you tend to feel anxiety in your stomach, you can use self-talk that helps you say, “This feeling in my stomach is excitement and adrenaline. I’m so excited about competing and I can’t wait to start the race and give it my best. I know my stomach will settle as I race.” You can reframe away from “This feeling is terrible. I can’t believe I’m doing this to myself, and I don’t think I’ll succeed.”
If you can recognize that some anxiety can help your energy and motivation, and that most athletes experience some level of performance anxiety, then you can begin to de-stigmatize it and train with this in mind. While training, begin to notice your physical signs of anxiety, like an increased heart rate, stomach tension, heavy breathing or difficulty relaxing. Pay attention to the thoughts going through your head and begin to identify anxious or stressful thoughts.
Sport psychology strategies for dealing with performance anxiety
Focus on breathing deeply during your training, pre-race, and during the race. Taking deep slow breaths from your belly will help your body and mind relax. All the oxygen you breathe goes to your brain and muscles and helps reduce the tension and anxiety that may inhibit your performance. It can help to count breaths slowly from 1-10 over 2-5 minutes. Practice breathing through your whole training cycle so that when race day comes you can apply this technique easily.
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Observation and reframing
Don’t be afraid of the thoughts that cause anxiety, instead, slow down, notice them and try to have calming, accurate responses. For example, if you are training with others and catch yourself anxious about whether you can keep up, begin to practice using other balanced thoughts, so instead of thinking, “This will be terrible – I’ll never keep up in training,” you can say, “I know I’m not as fast as them, but this is a training run and they are happy to train with me.” It helps to write down your anxious thoughts before the race and your responses to them so that you can get them outside your head, thus reducing repetitive thinking. Sometimes anxiety is heightened by the avoidance of sitting with what’s actually making you anxious. What are the thoughts? Where are they stemming from? Are they caused by a lack of confidence in yourself or your training plan? Are you expecting perfection? Is your self-worth tied up in your performance? Or are you just having some nerves about doing something new or difficult? Once you know the cause, you can write down a plan for how you’ll deal with it. Make sure you rehearse that plan so that your mind and body know that you can handle whatever comes. You can remind yourself you are developing more strength and resilience.
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Work your anxiety into your visualization for the event. Visualize the things you are anxious about in your race, and then visualize yourself dealing with them confidently. This helps you prepare effectively by dealing with anxiety head on.
With every race, figure out what works well for your pre-race routine. If you tend to have a lot of performance anxiety, pre-race distraction or grounding exercises can be great. This could mean listening to a specific type of music that helps you relax to an appropriate level, or helps you focus on confidence and energy. If you are too focused on bodily sensations that make you anxious, there are some simple grounding exercises that help you stay focused on noticing senses outside your body. Grounding simply means focusing on noticing or naming the sounds, sights, colors, smells, textures you see around you before the race.
If you have a hard time finding a practice that works, consider reaching out to a sports psychologist or a therapist who specializes in work with athletes. Above all, remember that your training and racing are a journey – enjoy the challenge of finding what works best for you. Focus on simple practices that save the mental and physical energy for the race. Don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, life is a journey and there’s no perfection.
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Dr. Cory Nyamora is a licensed psychologist and endurance sports coach. He is the founder and director of Endurance – A Sports & Psychology Center, Inc. a company that provides endurance coaching and psychological services to athletes of all ages. He provides trainings for organizations and athletes on topics related to the intersections of sports, mental health and overall wellness.