A runner before a race (© Getty Images)
Feeling anxious before a major competition is normal. Our fight-or-flight response has helped us humans to survive all these years. Nowadays, it helps us to be ready for a major physical challenge by increasing glucose in our blood and making us feel alert.
But pre-competition nerves can become excessive to the point of having a detrimental effect on your performance. Thankfully, though, there are plenty of strategies which we can use to dampen down the effects of anxiety before competition.
During the many years I competed as an elite athlete, I found myself feeling anxious before major competitions all the time. Through experimenting and practice, I honed a pre-race routine which helped me to feel calm, yet focused completely on delivering my all in the forthcoming race. But everyone is different, and what works for one person will differ from the next. What matters is what works for you, so it’s worth spending time testing out various ways of dealing with nerves. When you arrive at a strategy that works, write it down and stick with it!
My tips for managing nerves are as follows:
1. Plan ahead on practicalities
Logistical mishaps on, for example, transport and your kit are things which, if they go wrong, generate high anxiety. Eliminating this as a potential source of nerves is an easy win, by being fully on top of all these things in advance. During the current pandemic, complying with Covid-safety measures makes being organised about logistics even more important.
2. Just do your best
Worries about how you will perform compared to your rivals or others’ expectations can be debilitating. But ultimately, all you can do is your best, on any given day, whatever level that is. If you give it 100% no matter what, you can walk away knowing you could not have done better, regardless of the result. Focusing on this is a good strategy for banishing anxieties about comparisons. Spending a few moments visualising yourself delivering a good performance can also help.
3. Less is more
Immediately before an event, rest is vital. So resist the temptation to squeeze in more training, hoping that a final training session will help on competition day. Training takes time to have an effect and last-minute exertion is more likely to tire you out than make you perform better. If you are well-rested, you are more likely to perform well.
4. Have a goal
Plans do not always work out, but simply having a goal gives you something to focus on if you feel anxious before an event. Goals can be adjusted during an event – they need not be set in stone.
5. Transport yourself away
Finding an absorbing activity like reading a gripping novel or watching an exciting film will stop you from over-thinking the event or worrying excessively. Activities like this can be mentally refreshing and bring you to the start line feeling excited and ready to produce a massive physical effort.
The fight-or-flight response means we have peaks and troughs in our states of preparedness for any major challenge. To be on your top form when necessary, you must allow time and space for the troughs, i.e. for resting and decompressing. So along with learning how to manage nerves before competition, always make time for a good rest afterwards to recharge.
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics Be Active