Changing Your Relationship to Pre-Race Jitters
*This article originally appeared on the To The Point Acupuncture blog. Check out Sarah’s services here.***
Think about the last time you were at the starting line. What were you thinking?
“I hope I have (slept, eaten, trained) enough…”
“Everyone else here has (slept, eaten, trained) more than me…”
“This course is really hard. Don’t (bonk, crash, drop out)…”
“I am so nervous…”
How was your body feeling in those moments? Were you able to take full breaths? Was your stomach upset? Did you feel shaky or strong?
As athletes, we often spend all of our precious training time on conditioning our bodies and no time conditioning our minds.
Why does this matter?
The brain is a huge electrical circuit linked by neurons. One of the basic rules of electrical circuits is that electricity moves along the path of least resistance. Each time we think “I haven’t trained enough” at the starting line, the connection between neurons becomes stronger and stronger until that thought becomes automatic each time we pin on a race number; no matter how hard we’ve trained for the event.
For many of us, it’s not easy to change pre-race negative thoughts. The more force and effort we put into wrangling old thought patterns into new thought patterns, the more reinforced the old patterns become.
If this sounds like you, maybe it’s time to try a different strategy. Rather than trying to change your pre-race thoughts, try changing your relationship to those thoughts.
What does it mean to change our relationship to our thoughts?
Let’s take the pre-race thought “I don’t want to do this, this is going to hurt and I’m going to get my ____ kicked.” (As a cyclocross racer, I can’t think of a race where I HAVEN’T thought this at the starting line).
Option 1: You can sink into this thought, get wrapped up in the story of the pending dread and discomfort. Even if you have a great race, the thought pattern is likely to take over the next time you’re at the start line.
Option 2: You can take on an observer role. Hold that negative thought at arm’s length, take a curious and nonjudgmental attitude toward that thought, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Where am I feeling this thought in my body? Breathe into that space.
- What assumptions am I making about what is going to happen during my event?
- Is the story I am telling myself based in facts or based in fear?
- What about this situation is under my control (me) and what is out of my control (everything else)?
- How can I manage the discomfort caused by this thought?
Changing your relationship to your thoughts takes practice—and it can’t really be mastered if we only try it at the starting line.
This is where consistent mindfulness practices and yoga come in—both are excellent practice for learning to manage pre-race jitters. These practices involve learning to observe thoughts without becoming caught up in them, and learning to breathe and manage mental discomfort while engaging in physical movement. Add that to the recovery and strength benefits of yoga…and you’re starting to run out of reasons not to get on the mat.
For some athletes, pre-race jitters and performance anxiety can be debilitating. Many times this occurs when there is an underlying or unexamined anxiety or depression in the athlete’s life. In such cases, working with a therapist that understands the athlete and incorporates mindfulness and movement into talk therapy can result in radical changes both in athletic performance and overall quality of life.
If you are an athlete looking to tame your pre-race jitters, or a coach wanting to learn how to better serve your athletes, please reach out!!