Performance anxiety. It can roll through you in unexpected waves of nausea and self-doubt. It can threaten your appetite, your sleep, and leave your mind racing on high alert for any and every potential threat to your competitive readiness. A physical taper coupled with excess nervous energy can lead the best prepared athletes to over think, change regular pre-race routines, and even over train in the last few days before a race, when more rest would be best.
Symptoms of performance anxiety are unpleasant and uncomfortable and sometimes our first instincts are to judge it, attempt to control it, avoid it or make it go away. After all, our brain senses the anxious threat but doesn’t know the difference between an upcoming race we really care about and an approaching lion who hasn’t eaten for days.
So before you start to lament and ask, “WHY is this happening to me?!, decide to curl up in tense ball of nerves, or attempt to run away in a rush of panic, could a more welcoming approach to anxiety be considered? Can you let it in the door, make it your friend, and learn to harness it as positive performance fuel? Try these steps to make friends with performance anxiety.
Acknowledge its presence. Performance anxiety is normal and to be expected. We experience it because we care about an upcoming race or competition. If your anxiety level was zero, you’d likely be in a deep sleep, completely bored, and not invested to any degree in your sport or performance. View anxiety as the reminder that you care, you’re motivated, and that you’re ready to race, to compete, to push your limits and showcase your potential.
Your training has prepared you to handle it. Remember if you’ve trained seriously you’ve likely had some practice with managing anxiety before in your workouts. I know I’ve had workouts on the track as a runner, power tests on the trainer as a cyclist, or sets in the pool swimming that have made me nervous, with degrees of doubts as to whether I would be capable of handling the effort needed or simply completing the goals of the workout. But I also remember how good it feels to come out the other side, with that YES, I DID IT feeling. Sometimes looking forward to the other side of the workout or race, is enough to commit to pushing through the jitters and butterflies that come beforehand.
Calm your body and your mind will follow. IF you feel your pre-race anxiety levels to be so high that you can’t sleep, eat, or think straight, it may be time to practice using some specific calming techniques. For example, the use of deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation. Learning and regularly practicing taking deep, slow, complete breaths from the belly will usually trigger a relaxation response. Momentary muscle relaxation exercises can also help such as a quick body scan to consciously focus on releasing tension in muscles where it’s too high. It is also very common to carry excess tension in the neck and shoulders so releasing tension in these muscles tends to spread relaxation to the rest of the body. More specifically if you’re not sleeping because of anxiety, instead of fighting it, what is another calming activity you can focus on until you are able to sleep? If you’re having trouble with eating, what can you get down that will digest easily and contribute to your energy to perform? Making these contingency plans ahead of time is proactive preparation to manage anxiety with confidence. In turn, you will use up less excess mental and physical energy as a result of over reacting or over thinking when feeling anxious.
Harness the power of thoughts. A mental technique to gain control over our anxiety is by cognitive restructuring, that is, interpreting our anxiety symptoms (both mental and physical) as beneficial and positive for performing optimally. Focus on the conscious process of identifying and replacing negative interpretations of anxiety symptoms with positives. Ask yourself one simple question: “Is my interpretation of my anxious symptoms helping me to feel positive about my upcoming race? If the answer is no, work to replace such thoughts with more helpful and positive ones. For example, choosing to view your physical anxiety symptoms as an indication that you are prepared, physically ready to perform, and motivated to compete is a calming perspective when anxiety ridden thoughts strike. To illustrate, when I first started racing mountain bikes, I experienced my fair share of pre-race anxiety due to the newness of the sport, and the technical aspects that changed with every race course. I remember one specific race as a newbie to the sport, when I noticed my hands shaking before lining up to race. When I showed my hands to my brother his response, was “Good! It means all your systems are firing and you’re ready to go!” That was a great perspective shift that changed my mindset and confidence in a moment’s time. It was a great experience of the power of our ability to consciously change our interpretations of pre-race anxiety from a negative place to a positive, energized, and performance enhancing place.
Do one thing at a time. When your mind starts to race, or jump from thought to thought, and turns into a “monkey mind” slow it down with the purposeful intention to focus on only one thing at a time; only on what you have immediate control over in the moment. That is why pre-race routines, schedules, checklists and race plans that also include mental focus points are excellent tools for calming the mind and grounding our focus. Be proactive with strategies for moving confidently through the natural waves of anxiety.
Leading up to a race or competition, it can take some conscious effort and work to face anxiety thought acceptance, releasing tension through deeper breathing, reframing negative thoughts to positives, or routine behaviors. With practice, these strategies free you to focus on what you can control, and arrive at the start line with the confident, energized calmness that you’ve done everything possible to do your best on the day.