Keeping the Wheels on Track: Managing Your Performance Anxieties
“The real race is not on the hot, paved roads, the torturous off-road course or the smooth-surfaced velodrome. It is in the electrochemical pathways of your mind.” – Alexi Grewal, Olympic gold medalist
By Kristin Keim
The race season is now in full swing with the Women’s Giro, Fitchburg and of course the Tour de France all starting up this weekend, an inspiring month of racing for sure! This time of the season can also present some minor, and or major, obstacles whether it be dealing with a race injury, mental and physical exhaustion from the grueling race schedule, or other life issues that can always come into play and add a bit of stress. These types of stressors can also lead to hindering your performance for future races down the road. Athletes and coaches often talk about trying not to be “stressed” or worried but there are actually many situations when our emotions and anxieties can also be seen as facilitative and not just debilitative.
First off, what is anxiety? Basically, it’s an unpleasant emotional state that can produce feelings of being worried, scared, afraid and nervous, and physiological responses such as an increase in your heart rate and the sensation of having “butterflies” in your stomach before a big race. Anxiety is often equated to stress, which can be either positive (eustress) or negative (distressed). One of the keys to managing your own anxiety or stress levels is to have a better understanding of when you start to feel anxious, tight, or nervous and to become more aware of how these emotions might actually help or possibly hinder your performance during a race. For example, one racer might view her entire family coming to see her race at the U23 criterium championships as “A great opportunity to show my family what I can do and to repay them for all the support,” while another may worry about “How embarrassed I’ll be if I don’t race strong or win.” These two racers are at the same race, but their different reactions could lead to varying states of flow (optimal performance) or choking.
In order to become more aware and learn to manage your own anxieties there are several strategies that can help you develop both skills. Take the above example, the racer who is most likely to choke is the one focused on the race as being a threat and is only highlighting the negatives and her fear of failure. A way to combat these anxieties would be to think of this race as another goal or challenge to reach; she could put a positive spin on the situation by focusing on what was in her control and her strengths as an athlete. By looking at various race/life situations as challenging, you will begin to enhance your ability to develop optimistic emotions and choose more constructive coping strategies to enhance your own race performance. Another way to cope with performance anxiety is by learning to “reframe” or to reappraise a potentially negative or anxiety provoking situation, “I’m worried, it’s my first race back after breaking my collarbone” as something that can also be viewed as positive “I am strong enough to race again and well rested.”
Additionally, you can employ the power of your own voice. By making sure the little voice in your head is whispering rational, positive, and productive thoughts, you will keep focused on your race and ultimately your Goals. As previously mentioned in one of my earlier articles, Imagery is another strategy that can help you gain control over your emotions on and off the bike.
Now let’s go back back to our worried U23 crit racer above to see how she might take control of her situation.Instead of being overwhelmed by the negative, she could focus on positive self-talk, reframe the situation into one that will enhance her confidence by taking some deep Centering breaths, visualize herself racing strong. enjoy the cheers of her family each lap and remember that this is one of the stairs to reaching her goals. Just remember that many times you can’t control what happens in a race or how your body will feel but you can work hard at being mentally prepared, which will always be in your control.
“Carefully train to avoid anxiety during competition. There is need to have a way to gather and harness positive energy and to compete with relaxed intensity, free of fear, able to risk, little or no self doubt and courage to thrust onward.” – Deng Ming-Dao
Kristin Keim is a graduate student at John F. Kennedy University where she is currently working on her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. After racing a couple of seasons as a Cat 1 road cyclist on the NRC circuit, Kristin decided that it was time to pursue a new adventure in life and is now studying to become a Sport Psychologist. Her main focus is to help her fellow athletes become more aware of the mental tools they can use to reach their full athletic potential. Follow her on Twitter – @thek2
Photos: Leonard Basobas/LB Photos (top); Pat Malach/Oregon Cycling Action (Cycling T Shirts) (bottom).