Ask any professional athlete whether he or she gets nervous before a competition, match, or race and all will say the same thing: “Yes; no matter how long you have been in the sport, there will always be a degree of pre-race jitters.” The difference is that an experienced athlete has learned to control the degree of “jitteriness” just before the race starts.
I’m writing this having just returned from Eugene, Oregon, where we watched the USA Olympic Track and Field trials, and so the topic of mind-body connection is fresh for me. By the time you read this, the Olympics will be finished; a few dreams will have come true and many dreams will have been put on hold. Thousands of athletes will already be at home, thinking and planning for 2016.
Throughout my 30 years of running and coaching, I have seen all types of runners/athletes, from extremely talented runners who would fall apart on race day to extremely confident runners who will always race better than their workouts indicate. Is this confidence something you are born with, just like physical talent? Or is it something you can learn as you go along, improving your physical fitness?
I believe that achieving your maximal potential, whatever that might be, also involves learning to deal with butterflies in your stomach as well as learning techniques that will elevate your running to the next level. I believe in doing this in workouts so that when you get to the races, you will not have to think about it; it will happen automatically.
Athletes and coaches often neglect the “mind” part of that mind-body connection. Many coaches and runners feel that it will just happen as we get faster or as we get into better races. And if you think I’m talking just about elite runners, you are mistaken; I’m talking about anybody who wants to find out what it is to “tap into your psyche.” There is a line that I love from Pearl Jam’s “Crazy Mary”: “that which you fear most could meet you halfway.” Well, in this business of tapping into your psyche, you have to not only be willing to “meet your fears halfway” but to plan to meet them halfway and look them in the eye. You will be surprised at what you learn in the process.
The following are some techniques most elite athletes practice at some point or another. If you watch re-runs of all races at the Olympics, you will see the determination and focus in their eyes and the relaxation in their bodies. I’m sure that each one of those athletes spent thousands of hours preparing not only physically but also mentally for that moment in time.
Practice going over your race plan. Your race plan should have a positive outcome, right? Focus solely on that positive outcome; reject any other outcome.
I always tell my runners that it takes as much energy to pump yourself up as it does to pump yourself down, so choose wisely. I start by changing any negative thought into a positive—the more you practice this, the more automatic it becomes and, pretty soon, your mind will not allow a negative thought. For example, on race days, as soon as I wake up, I look outside and say “my kind of day,” whether it is -10 or 90 degrees. If I chose to race, I’m not going to be bothered by the weather; I will adjust my effort, but I will not use it as an excuse. The moment I let myself go there, I’ve already lost to everyone who said “my kind of weather.”
Personally, I like to practice this as much as possible so during each of my warmups, I think about what the day’s workout should accomplish. I focus on one part of my next race’s strategy. When race day comes, this helps me with pre-race jitters because I would have thought about and maybe experienced all possible race scenarios in my head.
This is the most important of all techniques for me, as it involves blocking out unnecessary stimuli. Learning to focus is not easy. It means to “be present, in the moment” and requires a lot of practice, discipline, and energy. A perfect example of this is when you see a gymnast performing a routine in the uneven bars. She misses the bar and falls…she has, I think, 30 seconds to gather herself up and start again (or not). Those who get back there and continue with a flawless routine were able to “stop the world” for a few seconds in order to do what they have been training to do.
This is like “piggy-backing” on someone else’s advice. When I hear other coaches or family members yell positive phrases to their athletes during a race, I like to borrow them if I need them, pretending that they are meant for me. Knowing the course I’m racing on is very important as well. I can visualize how I will approach every part of the course. I will not be surprised by a hill at the end of the race or how many turns there are; I can plan ahead.
This has to do with the aftermath of a less than satisfactory race—what are you supposed to do? What I do is objectively analyze the race, good and bad, learn from it, and move on, never dwelling on the negative when there is another race around the corner that I could try.
The glue that holds the mind and body connection together is confidence. Confidence starts with realistic goals and a well designed plan of workouts to achieve those goals.
It is the coach’s job to help athletes develop enough confidence so that when they get to the staring line, they know exactly what they can do.
Carmen Ayala-Troncoso is a nationally known athlete who has been coaching Austin-area runners since 1987. Ayala-Troncoso received her Masters of Exercise Physiology (minor in Kinesiology) from the University of Texas in 1985. She has been running competitively for 30 years; during that time, she has qualified for three Olympic trials (1992, 1996, and 2000) and represented the United States at four World Cross Country Championships (1994, 1995, 1999, and 2000). As a Masters runner, Ayala-Troncoso made the United States Cross Country open team in 1999 and 2000 and qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 5,000 meter in 2000. She has won numerous Masters and age group championships. She is currently coaching a small group of elite runners at Rogue Running.