My pre-race pattern is one of the keys to my success—in both sports and in life.
Even though I had been out of practice for a few years, the routine was the same. I worked hard during the weeks leading up to the event. The night before, I got everything ready and then tried to relax and get some sleep. True to form, I had a restless night. In the morning, I had a couple cups of coffee, a light meal, and went for an easy jog to stay loose. Then I hopped in the car and I was on my way. Just my luck, “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor (the best band ever!) was on the radio. Things were going my way. I was ready for my midterm exam in statistics.
I didn’t even realize that I was implementing the same routine I used for racing until I got in the car and heard that song. It gave me a little boost, which I needed after 20 years away from school.
Routines are important. They give you confidence. They are comforting. They give you the illusion of control, even when you know that there are many things about your race (or exam!) that you can’t control. They create a distraction from the pressure by giving you something simple to focus on.
Many years ago, I began using a routine to prepare myself for intense high school swim meets, not high school exams. It started with the simple act of listening to music on my headphones before stepping on the blocks, and it slowly evolved from there. My routine never crossed the line into superstitions, so that if something was amiss, I wouldn’t be paralyzed—I would still be just fine. Sometimes, just the thought of my routine was enough to calm me down. It’s amazing how you can have a physical reaction to something that is entirely mental.
Many years later, I still use some adaptation of this routine to prepare for almost any event that causes a nervous reaction.
Nerves are simply part of my life. I get nervous. I suffered from nearly paralyzing nerves during my Ironman career. After I retired from racing, I didn’t think I would feel nervous as a 44-year-old man taking a math test, but I did. I think nerves always surface when I’m doing something I care about. So nerves are an indication that I care (about statistics), and I want to do my best.
However, I’ve learned that nerves can be detrimental if I don’t have a productive way to deal with them. My high school swim team was incredibly intense. We won state championships. We produced heavily recruited college swimmers. The stakes were high. Many kids crumbled in that environment, but I learned how to handle the pressure by creating a pre-race routine.
Once I reached college, I automatically started using a similar routine to get ready for my exams. I fondly remember waiting for the professor to pass out the exams while I sipped a Coke and listened to a last few seconds of Van Halen to psych me up to “crush that test!”
Today I realize that my routine is one of the keys to my success, in sports and life. It allows me to cope with the nerves and turn them into something positive. I seldom have a need for it these days, so to subconsciously realize I was utilizing my old-school routine during my midterm exams was comforting. Maybe it’s that I have my final exam in a couple weeks, or all this talk about racing and nerves, but I find myself already hitting play and listening to my Van Halen collection again.
Tim DeBoom is the 2001 and 2002 winner of the Ironman World Championship, and the last American to win in Kona.