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It doesn’t matter how many times or at what level you’ve competed before, pressure, nervousness and self-doubt are always part of racing. I get just as nervous now as when I raced laps around the Kenwood Elementary School gymnasium in 1986. Any time you prepare to push yourself to the limit in the hopes of achieving a goal, pressure and doubt will inevitably arise.
A lot of athletes let these feelings negatively affect performance and sour their race experience. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Excited nervousness can focus your attention, increase your ability to push through pain, and elevate the emotion and enjoyment of the competitive experience.
It’s important to find a way to use pressure to your advantage. Like Kevin Nealon tells Adam Sandler in “Happy Gilmore,” “Harness in the good energy; block out the bad. Harness. Energy. Block. Bad. It’s circular. Up and down. And around.” I don’t know about the circular stuff, but ironically, Kevin’s mostly right. It’s about blocking out that bad stuff and using the good stuff to pump you up.
I’m not a sports psychologist, nor do I claim to know anything about how the brain works. But I do have some tools I’ve developed over years of competing as a runner and triathlete that seem to work for me. Here are four of the most important ones I use:
1. Create a pre-race schedule. A big part of the nervousness I feel before a race is related to all the crap I have to remember to do: check in, pack my stuff, eat dinner, set up transition, buff my aviators, the list goes on! So one thing I do is write down a pre-race schedule, every hour up to 48 hours prior to the race. I schedule my meals, when I’m going to work on my bike, when I’ll pack, check in, go to sleep, shave my legs, relax, call my wife, etc. It’s all in there. It takes 30–60 minutes of thoughtful planning, but it saves you 48 hours of nervous uncertainty.
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2. Erase external pressure. There are two types of pressure—internal and external. Internal pressure is brought upon by expectations and goals you set for yourself. External pressure results from expectations set by anyone other than you. This can be your friends, family, co-workers, coach, training partners, media, sponsors, dog, etc. External pressure is the toughest thing to deal with because it looms large before every race and feels completely out of your control.
Before I head into a race I think about the pressure I feel, and identify which aspects of it are external. Then I say to myself, “External Pressure, you don’t matter to me, booyah!” Pretty complicated, right? Seriously, that’s it. It’s important to make the conscious realization that you’re racing for your own reasons, your own goals and ultimately your own fulfillment. The expectations of others shouldn’t play a part in your plan. You are on a path of individually driven self-improvement.
If I have trouble remembering that, I repeat to myself a few thoughts or phrases, like “I’m not doing this for those reasons. I have goals that I want to accomplish. I have a process that I am following. That’s my decision. That’s my plan. I am not subject to the plans and expectations of others!” If it sounds like you’re a whiny, self-centered teenager, you’re doing it right. Don’t be afraid to say this out loud, while blasting Justin Bieber!
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3. Create a race plan. You’ve now identified that you’re doing this for your own reasons. So what are those reasons? Likely they are goals you’ve set for yourself that you feel accomplishment and happiness in pursuing and achieving. Most likely, these goals have to do with either (1) what place you’ll finish, or (2) how fast you’ll go. The only problem with these goals is that a lot of what determines your ability to achieve them is outside of your control. Sure, I always want to win/podium/PR, but I don’t know who’s going to have a good day or a bad day, or what the conditions are going to be like. So it’s important to create a plan where success isn’t defined solely by an end goal out of your control. Welcome to “The Race Plan.”
For every race I set two or three mini-goals per leg that are completely under my control. I complete The Race Plan regardless of how I feel, what place I’m in, or how fast I’m going. That means most of the goals are “effort”-based, or even simple checklist items that keep me on track while racing. A few examples of race plan goals that I’ve set for myself this year are:
Increase my effort every quarter of the bike
Get to mile 10 on the run feeling relaxed
Slow down to get water at every aid station
Regardless of what place I’m in or how fast I’m going, these are things I can and will do to feel that I’m achieving “success” during my race. Personal productivity experts recommend making a checklist and physically checking off tasks as you complete them to feel a sense of satisfaction. This is the same idea. Ultimately, achieving the final goal—a PR, a top 10, whatever—may be determined by your competitors, the course conditions or just how you feel on that day. But you can gain a feeling of success regardless by simply following a plan and checking off items as you complete them.
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4. Use positive affirmations. Even with a great race plan, you’ll still have doubts and fears that crop up during a race. Can I make it? Am I going to slow down/die/throw up? OMG, this is terrible. I suck! I’ve thought (and still think) them all. So I use a method I first learned on “Saturday Night Live”: positive affirmations by Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character.
Stuart looks in the mirror and repeats to himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I basically do the same thing, but instead of sitting in front of a mirror wearing a sweater tied around my shoulders, I’m in my race kit swimming, biking and running my butt off. Some of my most used phrases are:
You’re just chilling, no big deal.
You got this!
You’re killing it, dude! Nice work!
And yes, I say them out loud. The louder the better. It makes them more real, and it might even freak out the competition a little bit. Believe it or not, this stuff matters—and really works. It’s probably the most powerful tool I use every race. Triathlons are long and hard enough that you’ll always have feelings of self-doubt during stretches of the race. Using this tactic to derail those negative spirals can turn your race from a stinker into a success.
Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a second-year pro and the 2011 and 2012 Wildflower Long Course champion. He lives in Springfield, Ore., with his wife, American 5K champion Lauren Fleshman, and is the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com).
More from Jesse Thomas.