The starter’s gun is about to go off, and before you know it you’ll be taking off in pursuit of a personal record. It’s only natural to be nervous, but if you’re a nervous wreck at the starting line you’re hardly in a position to compete at your best.
“I really see three general categories of athletes: 1) athletes who compete at the same performance level that they train, 2) athletes whose performance seems to be better when they train than when they compete, they lose a gear at competition, and 3) athletes who seem to perform better when they compete than when they train, they gain a gear when they compete,” states Dr. Jim Bauman, who holds a PhD in sports psychology.
Is there a critical separating factor between these different types of athletes?
“Perspective is the key,” Bauman says. “For those athletes who seem to lose a gear, they are the ones who tend to focus more on what they don’t have or didn’t get done leading up to the competition.”
Having doubts, specifically in yourself, in your training, and in your ability to perform once that gun goes off will effectually channel all of the pressure, stress and nerves you’re feeling in a negative direction. It’s impossible to eliminate all of the pressure, stress and nerves, however, nor would you don’t want to do so. Rather, it’s more beneficial to limit as many external sources of pressure as possible and then use the remainder of that nervous energy to propel your performance forward.
First, it’s necessary to understand the difference between internal and external sources of pressure and stress. Internal sources of pressure and stress are those that come from within: your own drive to compete and self-dedication to put in the training and hard work for no one else but yourself. External sources of pressure and stress are those placed upon you by others or trying to fulfill what others expect you to achieve; they can be from parents, coaches, teammates, friends, even anonymous posters on messages boards.
In most cases, it is the external sources of pressure that can turn into problems. Having a coach who sets high goals they believe you can achieve is one thing, but if worrying about fulfilling others’ expectations that’s another issue altogether. Recognize the healthy, external sources of pressure and rid yourself from any of the negative sources.
Next, take some time to understand your nerves and why they are a good thing, then learn how to properly manage them. “Nerves…many seem to think these are ‘bad’ to have. Instead, they are necessary,” explains Bauman, “But, how you channel that energy into a productive performance or let that energy freeze you up is something you can change. This energy IS the drug of sport. Those minutes and moments before a competition are difficult to replicate in other life events…helping an athlete reframe that experience is our job to help them with…once they get it, watch out, you will see some amazing performances.”
Tips For Using Stress And Nerves To Your Advantage
Shift Perspective. “Certainly, there are always more things an athlete can do to prepare for a competition…but, when you run out of time, you are out of time and it is now time to focus on what you bring to the competition,” says Bauman. Push from your mind the things you should, could, or would have done and instead replay moments of strength. Recall hard workouts that you are proud of, all of the training you completed leading up to race day and focus on all the positives reasons of why you belong on the starting line in the first place.
Build Confidence. An athlete needs to have confidence; typically the ones who under-perform are lacking in this area. Building confidence takes time and is something to work on leading up to the race. Recognizing your strengths is part of that process, says Bauman. “I work with athletes to develop an inventory of what they have…specific strengths and skills they do bring to the competition.” He then has an athlete, “create a 3×5 card with one side being their game plan for the competition and an inventory of what they bring to the competition and they actually take that to practice and competition.” The objective behind the card is positive reinforcement; such is the reasoning behind incorporating it on a consistent basis, bringing it to practice.
Harness the Energy (Nerves). “We work on embracing this energy,” notes Bauman. The buzz of a race, the adrenaline and excitement of the environment, causes the body to go into fight or flight mode. This can cross the line into panic mode, in which the runner actually becomes afraid to compete. “A characteristic of panic is ‘freezing’…the athlete seems to not even do the things they would normally be able to do without even thinking about it,” Bauman says. Reminding yourself why you are on the starting line is a way to avoid going into panic mode; remember, you WANT to be on the starting. It’s the only place where you can begin the pursuit of achieving your personal goals.
“The gear gainers use that energy as a boost for them, hence, the extra gear,” explains Bauman. “Those who turn that energy inward are those who lose a gear. Nerves are that special fuel to fire the engines for greater performances.”
About The Author: Caitlin Chock set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. Still an avid runner, she works as a freelance writer and artist.