Jitters? Butterflies? How to turn nerves to your advantage
It doesn’t matter what level you compete at, pre-race jitters will be there at the start line, gnawing away at whatever you managed to have for breakfast. Some love the feeling of butterflies as they pull on their race kit. Others feel physically ill and swear they will never compete again. It’s important to know what level of nerves work for you as even the world’s best admit to being edgy before competition. Butterflies can grow into performance anxiety and while jitters can be channeled to help you focus, performance anxiety often causes athletes to tense up and not perform at their peak. Ignoring nerves works for some, but those who want to tackle things head on end up with the skills to nail everyday challenges as well as race-day wobbles.
The Sweet Spot
The nerves most people feel before a race are quite different to the feeling of being anxious or scared. Butterflies mean your head is in the game and your body knows it’s game on. “Performance anxiety” is very different. It is a reaction to stress or fear. Here's some points to help spot the difference:
* You are keen to get started
* You are pumped and feel strong
* You can identify potential challenges and feel able to manage them
* You feel your heart beating harder but it feels ok, not out of control
* You can mentally tick through your race goals step-by-step
* Once the race starts you find your flow and feelings are not your focus
* You have the juice to make it to the finish line
* You feel exhausted before the starter says "go"
* You feel scared before you start
* You feel or are physically sick
* You can’t process your game plan clearly in your head
* Your increased heart rate feels like it is racing out of control
* You worry about random things happening during the race
* You feel uptight after the start and it is hard to find your flow
Both lists cover the same things but how those things make athletes feel are quite different.
If you identify with jitters, awesome - you are where you need to have a great race and achieve your goals.
If the performance anxiety list makes more sense it is important to take steps to learn to manage this so your head doesn’t undo the hard training your body does.
Where jitters are more about wanting to get racing, anxiety often boils down to a fear of failure. Have a think about what causes you to feel the way you do before a race. Is there a point in the race the worries you? Is it about making mistakes or letting people down? Are the expectations of others an issue for you?
Here are some common anxiety trigger points:
Not hitting expectations
Fear of outcomes or result
Internal dialogue and negative self-talk
Fear of failing
Worrying about what others might think
Not having trained enough/right
Worrying about being warmed up
Worrying about it being “a make-or-break race”
Tips for Pre-Race calm
The following are some basic techniques to help settle butterflies and set you up for a great race:
Allow plenty of time. Don’t let yourself be rushed with any aspect of the pre-start routine.
Do a reality check with yourself. “Why am I here?” “What do I want?”
Warm up properly. Make sure you get your heart rate close to lactate threshold. This can really help the body steady the mind.
Don’t focus on fears, focus on positives. Imagine your perfect race and finishing strong. You can also focus on something else entirely. If you are getting too wound up think about your meal plan for next week to stop your mind spinning.
Be in the now. You can’t win during warm-ups or at the beginning of the race so think about what you need to do to get to the favourite part of your race plan.
It can be hard to hang on to this as the energy builds at an event but you have done the training and your body knows what to do - let your mind and body work as a unit. If you struggle to keep your internal dialogue in check there are professionals like sports psychologists you can consult and almost every coach and competitive athlete will have techniques they call on. Reaching out to someone you feel comfortable talking to sooner rather than later will set you up to fully compete. See you at the start AND finish line!