Cleere’s Corner: The difference between Racing and Training

Dr. Michelle Cleere
Nerves exist but anxiety doesn’t have to!

Can butterflies really turn into full blown anxiety and create worry, doubt, and fear? And impact my race? Years ago, I’d get ready to give a presentation and my nerves would pop up. For me the nerves start with the physical manifestation and then move to my brain. It would start with butterflies in my stomach and an increase in heart rate. Then it would lead to me thinking all kinds of negative, irrational stuff.

What was the outcome? Inevitably I’d get on stage and feel nervous. I’d stumbled through the first five minutes stuttering.

When I realized what was going on (after much insight gained through my MA in Sport Psychology), I knew I needed to change what was happening prior to my presentations. I developed a pre-presentation routine. I tried several things – music, movies and meditation. They all helped to a degree, but I still wasn’t feeling as confident as I wanted to.

The next step was to develop a mantra. Something short and sweet that would calm the nerves and get me feeling excited about presenting. My mantra was and still is – I am so excited. I sometimes add, I can’t wait to do this! My nerves start the night before a presentation. As soon as I start to feel the nerves, I say my mantra; out loud (if I am alone) or in my head. Two seconds later when the nerves pop up again, I say my mantra. Two seconds after that when they are still there, I say my mantra again. It takes some persistence.

Recognize the reality of anxiety

So how does it show up for you? How does it show up for racers? Anxiety is something every elite performer deals with at some level. There are three important things to understand about anxiety:

  1. Nerves which we often interpret as anxiety don’t have to get that big. Learn to let the nervous thoughts flow in and flow out. If you add to those thoughts, you make them bigger and that’s when the thoughts grow and become full blown anxiety.
  2. Nerves will always exist. They are the way our brain tells our body that something big or important is about to happen.
  3. You do have a choice how you deal with them.

Anxiety is a negative emotional state often characterized by worry, doubt, fear and nervousness. Anxiety appears cognitively through worry and fear. It also appears somatically through things like butterflies and increased heart rate.

The effects of anxiety on your performance

There are many theories on anxiety. The theory explained here is called catastrophe theory. Catastrophe theory states that low worry, increased arousal, and somatic anxiety are related to performance in an inverted U-way. With a lot of worry, the increases in arousal improve performance to a person’s optimal zone. If arousal continues beyond the zone, there is a rapid and dramatic decline in performance. Once a person’s performance has rapidly declined due to increased arousal levels, they would need to greatly decrease their physiological arousal before being able to regain previous performance levels.

Key considerations of anxiety

There are five key considerations to think about when it comes to anxiety.

1)   Identify your optimal arousal related emotions. Think of arousal as an emotional temperature and arousal regulation skills as a thermostat. Your goal is to find your optimal emotional temperature (under what conditions do you perform optimally) and then learn how to regulate your thermostat. Regulating your thermostat is done by either psyching up or psyching down.

2)   Recognize how your personal and situational factors interact. It’s important to understand the interaction of personal factors (self-esteem, state, and trait anxiety) and situational factors (event importance and uncertainty) to get the best predictor of arousal, state anxiety, and performance.

3)   Recognize your signs of arousal and anxiety. You can better understand your anxiety level when you become familiar with the signs and symptoms of increased stress and anxiety. Learn how to regulate the levels of symptoms based on your optimal performance level. The quantity of symptoms depends on the individual. It’s the quality that’s important to keep in mind. Try to notice changes in these variables between low and high stress environments and learn to make changes when necessary. Here are some of them:

4)   Develop your confidence and perceptions of control. You can develop confidence by being positive and putting yourself in positive situations/environments. By being positive you surround yourself with other positive people and positive situations/environments. One other way to develop confidence is by learning to feel ok about mistakes.

Deal with anxiety

Self-reflection is a critical component of being a cyclist. After a performance, write down how you felt before, during, and after (positive and negative) it. Keep track of your thoughts, feelings, physiological symptoms, your perception about whether the performance was easy, moderate or hard; what importance did you place on it, etc. You can use this information to become aware of what helps you play well and what gets in the way of your performance. Self-reflection allows you see the patterns and adjust the negatives to make a more positive change to your race.

Other techniques for dealing with anxiety

1)   Smile when you feel the anxiety. It’s difficult to be mad when you are smiling, and it takes the edge off anxiety-producing situations.

2)   Think fun. Highly skilled cyclists have a sense of enjoyment and fun while they are performing. Most of them look forward to the challenge of pressure situations. This does not mean they don’t get nervous.

3)   Breathe. Breathe. Breath control and focus produce energy and reduce tension.

4)   Use a mantra. Saying and thinking personally generated, positive words or phrases can be energizing and activating. Some examples are: I can do it, push to the top, , etc.

5)   Build confidence with a pre-race routine. Once you perfect some of the techniques for dealing with your anxiety you can incorporate these into a pre-race routine. A pre-race routine is a systematic sequence of preparatory thoughts and activities cyclists use to concentrate effectively before performing. These routines help train your mind to focus on what’s important versus focus on the anxiety. By concentrating on each step of a well thought out routine, presenters learn to focus on what is in their control.

Don’t try these for the first time the day of a race. All the above techniques for dealing with anxiety take practice. It’s something that you want to get in the habit of developing during less pressure training sessions, so you have a fully developed, personalized plan for the big race day. Just as you would you do for the physical aspects of your race.

Transform your anxiety into your zone

Your performance can be hindered significantly by how far your anxiety pushes your level of arousal. At the lower end of the arousal scale, a cyclist is not aroused enough to perform optimally. With a little psyching up, you can find your zone or optimal performance level. This zone is very small as compared to the lower and upper ends of the arousal scale. That is why it takes a lot of awareness, understanding and refinement to stay in that zone, and not drop off the other side into the psyched-out zone where performance drastically declines.

Remember, you aren’t going to change your anxiety levels overnight, but the great news is you can immediately begin to become aware of what your anxiety levels are and almost immediately figure out how to work on regulating your anxiety for optimal performance. For your best race!

Check in with Dr. Michelle if your anxiety impacts your race.
Dr. Michelle
Elite Performance Expert
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