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Overcoming Sports Anxiety

How to manage pre-race anxiety and nerves before race day…. 

I actually got inspired after recently reading an article tied to research showing optimists tend to live longer. Training your mental muscle for an endurance event is also reflective of this research as well. In working with age group athletes I’ve seen countless times where fear and anxiety is an equal barrier to physical limiters in preparing for an endurance event. Mental-training and preparation should be a part of your training regimen. 

Performance anxiety in sports is far reaching. It effects us all to some extent and in the recent olympics we had a up-close view on how it can impact performance with the most elite athletes like Simone Biles. It was fascinating to read about her “worry journal” to hear how she coped with her anxiety. 

Performance anxiety in sports can cause a decrease in athletic performance due to too much-perceived stress. Perceived stress often increases in athletes on race day can be due to having an audience and having extremely high expectations for their success (like Biles). It’s rarely the external situation that causes stress but rather an athletes “self talk” that leads to the perceived increase in stress. 

 

Improving your self-talk...

I love this article from VeryWell Fit that outlines how to deal with that negative voice in your head that sometimes is painfully hard to quell. According to the article and research too, “getting a handle on our self-talk is one of the hardest things many of us will attempt, whether we play sports or not.” Just like training for your race it will take time and dedicated practice. Research also shows athletes who practice this will improve their sport-related performance. Here are some steps you can use to put this into practice: 

Choose a mantra: To get started with creating more positive self-talk, choose one of two mantras you can use during your training. This could be a simple affirmation, such as “I feel strong,” or the mantra “Go, Go, Go,” or another simple, positive phrase you can repeat over and over¹.  I find this important to practice in training, racing, and ahead of races. I like using the thought, “this is my day,” during races and in training. 

Practice multiple scenarios: Once you have developed the habit of repeating this phrase during practice to the point where it is automatic, start expanding the dialogue so that you have familiar and comfortable statements for a variety of situations during your sport. For example, if you are cycling and reach a hill, you might say, “I’m a great hill climber,” or “I’ve done this before and it’s doable.” If you get dropped from the pack you can say, “Anything can happen, and I’m definitely not out of this. Don’t let up¹. ” 

Create a positive mental image or visualization: The phrases and words you choose should be those that you can immediately call up and create a visual picture of yourself doing exactly what you say. The image along with the words is a powerful combination that creates a positive message tied to a belief¹.  By visualizing complete with images of a previous best performance, a future desired outcome, and the experience of performing this you can embody the positive mental feeling you’ll need to succeed. 

Curbing negative internal messages and thoughts…

To rid yourself of that pre-race anxiety it’s important to practice positive self-talk and focus on what you can control. I’ve found it helpful for athletes who get really nervous ahead of races or even not making it to races due to anxiety to talk to other athletes who are dealing with the same challenges. Below is a list of resources you can use if you’re struggling with mental health and it is impacting your sports performance or daily life: 

  • Road Runners Club of America’s Mental Health Tips for Runners: The oldest and largest national association of runners and running organizations provides a mental health guide with sections on common problems such as disordered eating, stress, anxiety and depression.
  • Athletes for Hope: This organization, which educates and connects athletes to charities around the world, provides athletes with suggestions on how to take action on mental health.
  • Athletes Against Anxiety and Depression Foundation: The AAAD provides resources for those coping with mental issues in order to foster a community where everyone feels comfortable and unashamed to share their stories.
  • Athlete 365: This initiative of the International Olympic Committee supports member athletes through a community that offers advice, service and tools on topics including mental health.
  • Strength Over Silence: Tackling Mental Health Stigma: External link  This video from the National Alliance on Mental Illness features Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Chris Hubbard talking about the importance of mental health care.
  • Athletes Connected: This program developed by a collaboration between the University of Michigan School of Public Health, Depression Center, and Athletic Department conducts research and offers support to raise awareness about mental health issues, reduce the stigma of seeking help and promote positive coping skills among student athletes².  

If you’re struggling with pre-race anxiety preventing you from taking on a new challenge know you’re not alone! Talk with your coach, talk with your fellow athletes, and don’t be ashamed to seek out help. Know that just because you’re struggling or if you failed to make a race due to pre-race stress or anxiety you couldn’t handle, just like improving your mile time you can also personally improve your mental fitness. Regardless of your level of stress we can all benifit from positive self-talk. 

Good Luck Out There!

-Coach Dan, Training To Race

1. Quinn, Elizabeth. “How Positive Self Talk Can Help You Win a Game in Sports.” Verywell Fit, Verywell Fit, 29 Nov. 2020, https://www.verywellfit.com/positive-self-talk-3120690#citation 2. “Mental Health in Athletes: 45 Resources to Help You Cope.” Online MSW Programs: A Comprehensive Directory of Accredited MSW Degrees, https://www.onlinemswprograms.com/resources/mental-health-resources-for-athletes/.

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