Utilize your nervousness to galvanize your performances.
Athletes who don’t get nervous prior to competition are rare and special, but that doesn’t mean pre-race nerves are a bad thing.
Being a little nervous before a race means you care about your performance and have put in a lot of hard training to prepare. There is a fine line, however, between normal nervousness and letting anxiety get the best of you. The latter can put a damper on the enjoyment of racing and significantly hinder your performance.
Case in point: In the spring of 2007 I qualified for my first national track championship at 10,000 meters. At the time, just qualifying to race was an awesome opportunity, but the actual thought of lining up on the track against the best 10K runners in the country was utterly nerve-wracking.
My training had been going well and I knew I was fit, but as I sat in my hotel room the night before the race and looked at the entry list, all the confidence I had in my training and fitness began to wane. I started getting really nervous. I scrolled down the list and analyzed the well-known runners I would be competing against the next day: Galen Rupp, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, Dathan Ritzenhein, Ryan Hall. “Holy cow,” I thought to myself. “These guys are Olympians and I am going to get my butt handed to me. Not only that, but all those fans in the stands and message board posters are going to laugh at me for even being on the start line with these guys.”
I was so nervous that I barely slept the night before. At lunch on race day I could barely eat. While I was warming up, the crowd roared as the race before mine finished in an exciting kick. I got a shot of adrenaline so fierce I nearly threw up, and by the time I toed the starting line, nerves had completely taken over and I was a shell of the runner my workouts leading up to the race had demonstrated. I finished in second-to-last place in the slowest 10K time of my career.
How do you separate normal pre-race nervousness from crippling anxiety? More importantly, how can you utilize your nervousness to galvanize your performance rather than paralyze your abilities?
Taryn Sheehan, assistant cross country coach at the University of Louisville and an expert on handling race preparation, believes it all comes down to being prepared. “As runners we often worry and focus so much on the physical components of training, but do very little on the mental and emotional preparation. Running is the simplest sport there is but is often complicated by the intangible.”
Over the following pages we’ll outline four strategies Sheehan uses with her athletes that can help you overcome paralyzing pre-race nervousness.