at the races The Elite Approach to Race Day Jitters

The Elite Approach to Race Day Jitters

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How do the elites, those runners and race walkers on television—those we dream of being—deal with the same stress and demons as the rest of us do? Have they some superpower to slay the start line-pressure cooker monsters that often strike down the rest of us? I am faster than some, slower than others, but not an elite. On my journey to learn more about myself and discover what others deal with on race day and to learn about sport psychology, I needed to talk to those at the top. I reached out to some elite athletes and stuck my nose in some books on the subject to find out more.

I have taken the time to talk to my inner-self and found a lack of confidence, a need to try and prove myself and a fear of failure that makes me carry a load of pressure on my back and shoulders on race-day, that slows me down or drags me to a stop. I train physically, prepare and plan, but take little time to prepare mentally for a race.

“What you think affects how you feel and perform. Training your brain is as important as training your body.”

I have talked to regular runners (those of us not vying for Olympic medals) and learned that most runners get jitters or face some sort of self-imposed stress, pressure, or anxiety on race day. There are some that seem to have no problems racing, but they seem to be the minority. Everyone has a few doubts, stress, or demons they need to chase off as the start clock counts down, and reasons vary widely. I found that by naming the negative voice in my head, having a conversation about the validity of what my brain tells me, by realizing a bit of nervousness is normal and focusing on what I like about racing (what I originally thought was nothing), I might be able to perhaps better approach the idea of a race.

The runners and racewalkers at the pinnacle of their sport have often committed a portion of their lives and sacrificed to go after lofty dreams of such things as titles, records and Olympics. How do they handle stress and pressure on race day? How do they succeed?

I decided to talk to a former elite runners and racewalkers, the two endurance sports that keep me lacing up. My first stop was with Rachel Seaman, an Olympian and recently retired Canadian racewalker. I knew she had struggled with racing throughout her career and asked her some questions.

“I kept competing much longer than what I actually enjoyed. I think I’m so burnt out from years of pushing myself when I didn’t truly want to do it. I have no desire to run and never plan to racewalk again.”

Her honesty made me realize I needed to evaluate why I train and race. I evaluated myself on the run and sitting still. I realized I like training hard, being fit and going fast, and that I liked achieving goals. But other issues were making me turn racing and race day into something negative. I did not want to get to the point like Rachel where I was pushed too far it made something fun and I liked doing into something I never wanted to do again.

Another elite racewalker, Katelyn Ramage, a 3-time Senior national champion, competing at international racewalk cup events and the 2015 Pan American Games, also shared her struggles. “My anxiety sits on my shoulder, making my brain go 24/7,” she says. “I often have difficulty articulating what I feel because I do not always understand it. I struggle with the unknown—even when I’m confident of my abilities, I doubt myself in the moment. It has been six years I have been struggling athletically, is this the end? Do I have more? As a high-performance athlete, I would love to say that I have everything together, but I don’t.”

Ramage says that even though racing is a challenge, it’s a rewarding endeavour and has been a big part of her life. “It is sometimes in my most difficult, darkest moments that I learn and gain the most,” she says. “It’s where I remind myself that it is okay to not be okay. That I am worthy. That I can compete and train at the level I know I am capable of. It is those reassurances although sometimes are through cloudy lenses that remind me of how far I have gone on the journey I am on, and what lays ahead. The next time I toe the line or head out for a difficult training session, I am not bouncing back from these experiences I have had, but rather I will continue to grow and use them to grow and move forward.”

Hearing that those at the top also hear the tiny negative voices on race day makes me realize that doubts, stress and pressure are things that all athletes deal with. We can all learn from our challenges.

Three-time Olympian—and now a counsellor—Leah Pells also gave me some great advice. I had read her book about her struggles and her success and wanted to know how she handled race day from the perspective of a former elite runner. She advised me to stay in the day/moment, focus on things I can control, think about things that make me happy and that its not about the outcome, but the process and fun. She also made me realize that life and sport are the same and that I need to look at why I would be doubting myself on race day. She suggested I take time to visualize and trust my body.

“We often outthink our bodies. Trust your body. Let your body do what it needs to do,” she said.

I have taken the time to look inward, talk to other runners and now to the elites. I need to work on my self-confidence, find ways to focus on what I like, visualize what a successful race would be and practice positive thought. For those that follow me on social media, I have also realized my need to impress and prove myself has changed my social media posts from helping me share, connecting and letting out my thoughts to being a need and negative use of energy and thought. Life is about life and change. I will have a smaller social media footprint, but have more time to connect with myself and others around me and, perhaps, be able to race.

Learn from the past, prepare for the future, and perform in the present.

Follow Noel’s journey through his articles as he continues conversations with others and looks for answers and a way to survive a fall race. Find an earlier Noel Paine story right here.