There are many reasons why athletes feel nervous before an event. Whether it’s your first race or your 50th, when you roll up to the start line or you’re standing on the beach waiting for your swim start, you’re probably going to experience some race-day anxiety. It’s normal to feel nervous when you’re about to take on a new challenge. It’s expected to have some race day jitters when you are about to tackle something important to you and you’re unsure of the outcome. These are situations when you may find yourself thinking:
- What am I doing?
- I don’t belong here.
- I should have trained more.
- What-if I don’t finish?
- What if I let my down my family/friends/teammates/sponsors?
The nerves you feel are a part of your fight-or-flight response. Your heart starts to beat a little faster and your palms get sweaty. It’s hard to focus, your breathing is shallow, your stomach is in knots, and you’re looking at the line for the bathroom wondering if you have time to go to the bathroom AGAIN before your race starts.
Race day anxiety comes from not feeling prepared for the challenge ahead, or from putting too much pressure on yourself to achieve a specific outcome. And when the event means something to you, when it’s important to you and holds some significance (i.e. you’re racing in someone’s honor, it’s your biggest race of the year, it’s a championship event, etc.), you will tend to increase that pressure even more.
Of course, there are things you can do leading up to the race to help you feel more confident and prepared going in, but sometimes your fight-or-flight response gets triggered with the energy and anticipation on race day morning, even when you go in prepared and ready to go. Here are 5 tips to quell your anxiety on race day:
Accept the nerves
It’s OK to be nervous. Expect it and accept it. In fact, there are some athletes that will tell you they’re more concerned before an event when they don’tfeel nervous. Anxiety can actually be a facilitative emotion if you don’t let it get the best of you. Another thing to accept is that you probably won’t sleep well the night before your race. Don’t worry about it. Worrying about it only makes you feel worse and it turns out that lack of sleep the night before a race might not feel great, but physiologically you will still be able to perform the way you would with a good night’s sleep (Reilly & Edwards, 2007).
Reframe the butterflies
The extra adrenaline in your body that kicks in when you ignite your fight-or-flight response triggers a whole host of physiological responses, one of which is that feeling of butterflies in your stomach. If you perceive your physiological symptoms as “bad”, then when you feel butterflies you label yourself as being nervous. Changing your perception of those butterflies can help with your nerves. When you start to feel nervous on race day, reframe the butterflies by telling yourself that you’re not nervous, your body is just getting excited and getting you ready to race.
Give yourself an emotional boost
Your emotions play a very big role in your behavior. Your emotional state will alter your feelings of motivation and confidence as well as govern how much effort you put out. You feelyour emotions because there are different physiological changes associated with different emotions and those physiological changes can either boost or dampen your physical performance. One recent study showed that outcomes were significantly enhanced for sprinters when the athletes imagined a very happy moment in their lives immediately before their performances (Rathschlag & Memmert, 2015). Give yourself an emotional boost by thinking about your best performance, your favorite scene from a funny movie, or any happy memory from your past that makes you smile, laugh, and feel good.
Are you looking around at your competition and feeling like you don’t stack up? Are you worried about how you’re going perform compared to the people around you? Comparing yourself to your teammates and competitors can fill you with anxiety. You need to gauge your success based on YOUR goals and YOUR performance regardless of what anyone else does around you. It’s your day, it’s your goal, and it’s your race. Don’t compare race-to-race either. Even if you’re racing the same race in similar conditions – every race day is different. You need to trust yourself, trust your training, and just focus on your own race and your own journey.
Stay in the moment
This is one of THE most important and impactful things you can do to alleviate your anxiety and improve your performance – and one of the hardest. Keep your mind in the present moment. Stop time traveling into the past thinking about the training you think you should have done. Stop traveling into the future worrying about the outcome of the day. Stay right here in the conversation of the race and you’ll be more likely to adjust and adapt to the race day challenges that come. Breathe, stay in the moment, and enjoy the day.
Rathschlag, M. & Memmert, D. (2015). Self-generated emotions and their influence on sprint performance: An investigation of happiness and anxiety. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 27(2), 186-199.
Reilly, T. & Edwards, B. (2007). Altered sleep-wake cycles and physical performance in athletes. Physiology and Behavior, 90(2-3), 274-284.