It’s Spring 1990 and I am a brace-faced freshman at St. Paul’s School about to row my first race. Despite the crisp New Hampshire air, even just the thought of the battle ahead has me sweating through my racing singlet. I spent the previous night playing out my worst fear—no, not that I would lose, but that my forearms would seize up during the grueling 1,500-meter sprint. The bad dream ends with the oar flying out of my hands, which naturally causes us to lose the race. In this nightmare scenario I let down my entire team, and worse, my coach. Thankfully we ended up winning, but this would not be the last time I would suffer from Pre-Race Stress Disorder, or PRSD. Today, it is time you conquer the medals stand with these five tools.
We all experience race-day jitters, whether prepping for an Ironman, marathon, collegiate rowing championship, even a big presentation at work. But one thing I’ve learned is that PRSD doesn’t have to be a nerve altering, nauseating, or paralyzing experience. Here are five tools to talk your way off the ledge and onto the medals stand.
Races require consistent, disciplined preparation. If you’ve followed a plan and stuck to 90 percent of it, you can know with some certainty that both your body and mind are ready for the event. This involves being diligent about fueling, hydration, recovery, and rest. Trust your plan. Trust the work you’ve already done. And remind yourself that you’ve already done the “race” within the hours of your training. Now it’s time to prove it.
2. Break It Up
Regardless of the size of the challenge, try reducing it into smaller, more attainable goals. A marathon, 2k rowing race, or a triathlon can all be broken up into pieces. During the Ironman World Championships in Kona, I couldn’t look at the daunting 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run all at once. I literally had to hone in on just the swim initially and more specifically the start of the swim, the base, and the finish. I then did the same with the bike. By the run, I literally had to make each mile marker a goal. With legs of lead, a self-inflicted Kona fever, and searing knee pain, a streetlight or road sign were as far ahead as I could go. By breaking a race into smaller goals, achieving them, and then moving on to the next, I’ve been able to accomplish bigger, seemingly impossible challenges.
Hours before our race at U.S. nationals, Todd Jesdale, my coach on the junior national team, told us to find a comfy spot on the grass. He asked us to close our eyes and relax while he took us through a 10-minute visualization. He guided us through every possible scenario, good and bad: a strong head wind; a tailwind; leading at the 1,000 by a length; down by a length at the 500; someone popping the slide; and so on. Of course he ended with the scenario of our crew rowing the perfect, victorious race. Visualization is a powerful tool, but not only for seeing perfection. The pre-competition fear of the unknown afflicts most, if not all, of us. Mitigate it by having a plan.
4. What is Your Why?
Why are you here? Why have you trained, sacrificed, and committed to this? Perhaps you want to push yourself to new limits, conquer a particular fear, support your team, get the job, race in the memory of a loved one, or make it into the medals. Use the answer you come up with as motivation in the chaos of the start or to get you over a mental hump during a particularly grueling segment of your event. There is always an answer. Make it clear, hold it close, and let it fuel your performance
Here’s the fun part. Take all of the above—your preparation and training, your smaller goals, your visualization, your reason for showing up to race—and then attack the race with the most determination and focus you can muster at that particular moment. You never know the outcome of a race before you start it, but the best insurance policy for a great race is an athlete who gives his or her body and mind the tools required to crush it.
Go big, go hard, and remember that this is your race. Own it and enjoy it, from start to photo finish.