There’s one thing every athlete—college football players to Olympians, marathoners to CrossFitters—can relate to: pre-race or event jitters. The days, hours, and minutes before the clock starts can have your cool demeanor cracking, your palms sweating, your heart hammering. You start to question if you’re ready and if you should run (in the opposite direction of the finish line) while you still can.
And that pre-race anxiety isn’t just unpleasant—it can also affect your performance. “It’s been suggested that many coaches regard sport as at least 50% mental when competing against opponents of similar ability,” according to Keith Kaufman, sport psychologist and research associate at the Catholic University of America. “In some sports, that percentage can be as high as 80 to 90% mental.” His conclusions were published in new research published in the American Psychological Association.
But you can conquer half the battle and take a mindfulness-based approach to pre-event jitters. Focus on the present moment and think about this experience as something that will come and go, rather than an event that will dictate your happiness or levels of satisfaction. This way you can tune in to your body and your performance, rather than letting anxiety eat at you. If you can perceive your nervous thoughts as nothing more than thoughts, you won’t be affected, Kaufman explains.
You don’t have to suffer through what could be performance-wrecking (or at the very least, uncomfortable) nerves. Instead, try these simple tricks courtesy of clinical sport psychologist Gloria Petruzzelli to stay mentally tough no matter what obstacles get in your way.
1. Just breathe
Take three deep breaths. Your inhales should match the length of your exhale. So, count to four on your inhale and four on your exhale. Breath is an indicator of your mood and vice versa. Breathing is the only autonomous system of the body you can control. This means that if you directly change how you breathe, you can change your mood. It also means that when your mood changes, so does your breath. Before the start of a race or event, really focus on slow breathing. It can result in a calmer mood and mind.
2. Talk to yourself
They may seem cheesy, but mantras and quotes are great for keeping and redirecting your mental focus. And top athletes use them. Quotes such as ‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,’ or ‘To be outstanding—get comfortable with being uncomfortable’ can help remind you that pushing past limits requires change and change isn’t always comfortable. Recite these in your head when you start to feel doubtful or unfocused. Mantras can help you challenge negative thoughts when your body starts to fatigue and you start questioning your ability to push through. To make your own mantra, use present-tense positive statements in the first person. Sounds very particular, but trust us, it works. Use statements like ‘I’ve got this’ or ‘Stay strong.’ If you use negative statements like “I can’t mess up,” your mind focuses on messing up, rather than succeeding. Also try to use mantras that focus on controllable, tangible factors, such as “Stay fast,” rather than “Beat this person.”
3. Trust your training
If you’ve stayed consistent with your training plan and preparation, then there’s no reason to doubt your ability on race day. Most of the hard work has been done at this point. In the days leading up to a race, watch course or race videos and visualize yourself looking confident during the race, read positive affirmations, quotes, blog posts, or listen to pump-up music to help you get into the zone. Do anything and everything to keep yourself focused and excited. Remember: At this point you can’t add fitness to the bank, but you can sabotage your fitness if you let your focus run off into a frenzy. So don’t allow yourself to think about your worries, anxiety, or fears, or allow others to talk about them around you—this only deepens negative beliefs and feelings. Fear begets fear, worry begets worry. So only let yourself talk about your past training successes.
4. Own your personal strengths
Only you know what got you to the race and will get you to the finish line. Everyone has character strengths and experiences that they can capitalize on in challenging situations. First, have awareness of what your strengths are and secondly, use them. Embrace your competitiveness, your humor, your grit. Remember, it was your time, money, training, and planning that got you to the race, so own it. Enjoy the process and focus on doing you on race day!
5. Embrace the nerves
Pre-race jitters means your body is ready and filled with adrenaline. And some amount of them is good for your performance. Verbally remind yourself that your body’s cues are telling you that it’s ready and it’s race time. A ready body is an excited body, and excitement can feel like jitters.
6. Know your goal
Successful athletes know their goal so well that they can close their eyes and create a mental picture of it in their mind. The more vivid and clear your goal is, the more your brain and body know where to aim. Motivation increases when you know where you’re are aiming your efforts. This means creating a picture in your mind, putting visual cues of your goal in your environment, or writing it out specifically and clearly in your training log. Then leading up to the race, you can recall your goal to help focus and direct all that energy so you’re more excited and less freaked out.
7. Focus on what’s in front of you
Motivated and focused athletes know not to stress about things out of their control, such as tomorrow’s weather or yesterday’s performance. Since they know there’s a bigger picture in mind (their goal) they don’t allow minor worries about the past or future get in the way of what they have to focus on right now—the race, game, or competition at hand.
8. Be realistic
Radical acceptance means accepting reality for what it is. When you’ve radically accepted something, you’re not fighting it. That’s not to say you like what’s happening, but when you stop mentally fighting circumstances (a stomach cramp, a slower time, etc.) this puts you in a better position to problem solve. What some athletes fail to grasp is when they react, or get into a negative emotion or negative self-talk during race day, they directly decrease their ability to solve any mishaps they may come across during their race. An emotional mind will cloud out a rational mind for anyone anytime of the day. So stay focused on what you can do and radically accept what is out of your control.