On December 6th, everyone on the team at Vesper sat down to pull the first 2k of the year. For me personally, it was the first time testing since the previous January. An informal poll (i.e., me randomly talking to my teammates about the 2k and simply observing the nature of the conversation at the boathouse) during the week prior indicated that everyone was experiencing some sort of pre-race nerves. And if not overtly nervous, there was a definite collective tension in the air that I’m guessing the entire team could feel – a tension due partly to the hyper-focus that occurs before any big race or testing event and partly to the combination of everyone’s pre-race nerves.
As an aside, I love how the focus builds before race day. To me, it’s a sign of a well-designed training plan that progresses toward a clear goal and an indication that the athletes are energized for whatever the challenge ahead. In most cases, it also signifies the near end of a training cycle and the chance for a mental reset. Approaching the year from this perspective – focus and build, focus and build, focus, focus, focus… RACE!… breathe (and maybe have a glass of wine!)… reset – is something I’ve adopted quite recently, and is proving tremendously helpful with embracing the mental expanse of the year. In other words, it’s much easier to work through small chunks and training cycles attached to specific goals than it is an entire year with one big end goal in mind. That, however, is a topic we’ll save for another day…
Winter is in the air, 2k season is here, and so today is meant to consider the nervousness we feel before racing. In addition to my experience testing last month (more on that later!), the work I’ve been doing with high school athletes has been a constant reminder that pre-race nerves – 2k nerves, in particular, which seem to be a breed of their own – are a very real and potentially paralyzing thing. At best, athletes tell me about feeling anxious and not knowing what to do before the start; at worst, they admit to not finishing an erg test or feeling too scared to try. So let’s look at why and talk about ways we can reframe the nerves in our head. The most obvious answer to “why” – why we feel nervous or anxious or scared or downright panicky before racing – is because we care about how we do. We’re engaged in something we love, investing the time and heart to improve, and naturally want our results to reflect our efforts. Beneath this though and what I think drives our nerves at the core is the tendency to see our results as reflections of ourselves. We fail to separate who we are from what we do, attach meaning to our erg scores and on-the water performances, feel weighed-down by self-imposed pressure or pressure we feel from our parents, coaches or friends, and ultimately identify way too closely with whether or not we achieve our goals. This mentality fuels anxiety and prevents us from performing our best: instead of feeling excited to see what we can do on race day (good!), we feel scared of disappointing ourselves or failing to meet expectations (bad!).
With this in mind, the goal for moving forward is twofold: 1) change the way we see our results, and 2) reframe the nerves in our head. Changing how we see our results (and how we relate to our performance in general) is the tougher of the two tasks. It’s something that comes from inside and takes time, perspective and patience with learning to separate who we are from what we do on the water. Lauren Fleshman is an American track and field athlete I love to follow and offers advice on the topic here. Personally, I’ve never been big on mantras but the one she shares speaks to exactly what we’re trying to achieve: “Running [sub: rowing] is not who I am; it’s something I do; it’s something I love.” Start thinking of your racing with this mantra in mind. If nothing else, it will initiate a shift in how you relate to your rowing, giving you room to adjust your mindset in time.
Reframing nerves is a way more tangible process that can be used and effective immediately. As another short aside, it’s my third post to date and I’m afraid I’m establishing a pattern of offering advice through lists and step-by-step processes, which is not my intent for this blog! However, it’s useful to think of reframing our nerves with a specific progression in mind… so here goes! And I promise no lists, bullet points or “step-by-steps” next month!
This is as simple recognizing that nerves are part of the game… for everyone. They’re not unique to me, not unique to you, but a natural part of racing that everyone experiences in some way. It’s an obvious yet critical point that I like to bring up because I went through a period when I literally thought I was the only one struggling with pre-race anxiety and fear, and started questioning whether I belonged on the race course because of it. A shift in my understanding was triggered by a conversation I walked into one day between two of my teammates (both of whom have raced on the national team) about how awful it was to sit and wait for the start. Around the same time, another teammate – an incredibly focused individual with a promising career ahead – commented on how racing wasn’t fun. Wait… WHAT?! To hear that from someone I’ve seen crush the competition time after time was tremendously telling and a relief!
As competitors, we have natural tendency to size people up at the start. (Note: I’ve made it a habit to stop doing this, which has proved a valuable discipline you might want to try. Throw on some badass sunglasses and keep the pre-race focus on you!) Inevitably everyone looks calm, collected and in stark contrast to how you’re feeling inside. On top of that, a dichotomy exists between the idea of fun and the feeling of pre-race anxiety and fear. So when coaches and parents repeatedly ask if you had fun racing, it’s easy to think something’s not adding up. Winning is fun. Boat speed is fun. Pushing your body and tapping into your limits is fun. But racing… racing makes many of us feel open and vulnerable and scared – words that don’t exactly equate to “woo-hoo!” ☺
If you’re an athlete with a natural affinity for racing and none of this sounds familiar, lucky you! If not, find power in knowing that you’re not alone. Even the best have anxieties and fear like you.
This is making room for the nerves instead of fighting them. It’s based on the idea, or truth I should say, that we can’t change how we feel before racing. Sport psychologist Dr. Mitch Greene explained it to me like this: Our nervous system knows when something’s at stake (like when we’re racing!). Likewise, our body intrinsically knows when we’re pushing outside of our comfort zone (like when we’re racing!). As a result, we get protective, defensive or both, which triggers what he likes to call “mind chatter” – the self-doubt, second-guessing, anxiety and fear that loves to show up when we need it the least (ahem… like when we’re racing!).
Many athletes hope to find ways to subdue the self-doubt and eliminate fear. Or we think something’s wrong with us because we experience negative emotions or second-guess our ability and strength (remember the fun versus fear dichotomy). After we understand that it’s normal – repeat: normal – to experience the mind chatter, we can accept it as part of the landscape and prepare for when it shows up. Enter: creative planning.
3. Creative planning.
This is the part that’s fun because it means tapping into your personality, and requires some self-awareness and usually some trial and error, too. Creative planning is knowing yourself as an athlete and figuring out how to manage your nerves (how to respond to your mind chatter, if you will) in the way that works best for you. In other words, learning what you need to do and say to set yourself up to perform. This can vary and will likely change as you grow. Likewise, there’s no right or wrong because what you need is totally personal. Some people like to hang out with teammates before racing, others like to plug-in, others sit on the bike or go for a jog to clear their head or kill time. Me… I like to spend time alone and have made it a habit to sit and eat in my car after weigh-ins, which I know sounds sad! But I honestly love the time and the space to focus.
In terms of what we say to ourselves and how we respond to the chatter, remember that we need to make room and not fight. Dr. Greene told me once to visualize standing beneath a waterfall; negative comments, self-doubt and fear are the water that’s flowing down. Next, visualize stepping behind the waterfall into a place where you can see the comments and hear the doubt but simultaneously realize that you aren’t the comments, you aren’t the doubt. In other words, you’re now in a place where you can acknowledge the chatter and then separate yourself and refocus.
I also think it’s useful to take some time to explore the root cause of your nerves. Ask yourself: When push comes to shove, what are you truly afraid of… disappointing your parents, disappointing your coach, failing to meet personal expectations, getting beat by your teammates or someone from another team? When you pinpoint the cause, you can work to rationalize your way out. So, when I heard the chatter pre-2k, I started to think of the “why” (full disclosure: I first thought, “Seriously?! Again?!”) and realized that I was nervous about disappointing myself. What would cause me to feel disappointed? Not leaving it all on the erg. Great! Easy solution. Give it my best then regardless of whether or not I PR, I can stand up and at least be proud of the effort. See how that worked. You might think I’m kidding but this was seriously part of my thought process last month.
Lastly, I think that at times a little tough love can go a long way. Hopefully that doesn’t make anyone cringe but recently I’ve been operating with a “just do it” mentality and it’s honestly been working quite well. Having said that, be careful with this and remember to always be kind. The last thing we want is to establish an internal dialogue that’s 100% tough and 0% love.
On that note, let’s bring it back to last month’s 2k. I’ve been dying to share the podcast I listened to in my car after weigh-in: The Best of: Women of CrossFit by Barbell Shrugged. What better choice for a little pre-2k kick in the pants? Enjoy! (And get after those tests next month!)