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.