We’ve all experienced the feeling of anxiety on the morning of a big race – butterflies in your belly, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, tension headaches, an upset stomach, or tightness in the chest – as they are your body’s natural reaction when the adrenaline starts pumping. However, anxiety at its most severe can have a dramatic, negative impact on your performance. Lauren Povey, a cognitive behavioural therapist who supports people with anxiety at the Priory Hospital in Chelmsford, has spoken with us about a technique that could be put to good use by athletes of all disciplines who struggle with pre-race nerves.
What is cognitive behavioural therapy?
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a proven treatment that helps people to recognise unhelpful thought patterns and how they are choosing to respond to them. It allows people to become aware of their negative thoughts so that they can adapt and change the dysfunctional behaviours that follow as a result. Lauren explains: “While you may think that your performance is just driven by external factors like your fellow racers, the weather or an injury, it is also influenced by what you think you can or can’t do as a result of these external factors.”
How often have you heard the expression, “If you think you can’t, then you won’t?” If you’ve already decided in your head a race is going to go badly then this can go a long way into determining the final outcome. So while we can’t always stop our thoughts, we can change how we choose to respond to them. How does this work in practise, then?
Recognise and reframe your negative thoughts
In the run up to and after races, take time in the evening to write down moments when you became anxious and reflect on what you thought, how you felt and how you went on to behave. Think about answering the following questions to help you:
- What caused you to become anxious? Were you worried about letting people down if you don’t get a particular time? Are you a not-so-confident swimmer and you became nervous in open water? Pinpointing specific elements helps to know how to deal with them.
- What did you think at the time? Did you automatically gravitate towards thoughts that you were going to perform badly or that you were going to make a mistake?
- What will happen if you continue to think this way? Will your anxiety cause you to be distracted in moments when you should be focused? Will it lead you to constantly doubt yourself and undermine your training?
- How can you challenge the initial thoughts you had at the time? You know you’ve put in the training hours and achieved this many times before, so you need to learn to tackle these thoughts head on rather than letting them overwhelm and consume you.
- What would be a healthier way of thinking about the situation? You may want to think “I’m going to try my hardest to do the best I can”
- What can you do the next time you think negatively? Make a conscious effort not to dwell on your negative thoughts the next time they arise. When you feel them welling up, focus on your experience, skills and the previous achievements instead.
Once well-versed in this technique, you will be able to pause and redirect yourself away from negative thoughts the moment they arise so that they don’t distract you from your focusing on your race.
Visualise your success rather than your failure
In the run-up to your event, regularly visualise the achievement that you want, whether it is a spot on the podium, a new PB or even just that you will not walk instead of running. This will act as a non-verbal instruction, training your body to act confidently in moments when you otherwise would have been nervous.
Just like any skill you use in your sport, practise makes perfect. Lauren explains how to get started on visualising:
- Find a private, calm space and make yourself comfortable
- Take a few slow and deep breaths to calm yourself
- Close your eyes
- Set the scene – make it feel like you are actually there. What venue are you training in or competing at? What sights and sounds are you experiencing?
- If you are worried about a skill or strategy you have been struggling with – like your bike-run transition – imagine yourself doing it perfectly and confidently
- Do you get distracted by negative thoughts during a race? Try to imagine yourself poised, relaxed and focused, performing exactly the way you want to under conditions you’d normally find nerve-wrecking.
- Remain in the moment for 5 to 10 minutes until you feel relaxed
- Assure yourself that you can return to this place whenever you want or need to relax
Swap your negative inner dialogue for positive self-talk
Anxiety can cause you to focus on all the mistakes you could make and believe that the worst possible scenario will happen. Swapping this for positive self-talk can prevent these thoughts from intensifying and impacting you before, during and after your performance. Then even when things don’t go quite to plan, you should take the time to review because any small step that you make is progress.
The great thing about CBT is that it is accessible to everyone. You can incorporate it into your daily routine to help improve your state of mind in the long term and if you experience anxiety in other areas of your life, such as at work, you can mirror the same techniques there, too. Visualisation can take time to get used to, especially if you’ve never done it before. Don’t worry if you feel a bit silly at first! Starting with a guided practise like the meditations available on Headspace and Calm can help.
As a final reminder, Lauren says, “If you feel like your symptoms are becoming more persistent and are impacting your day-to-day life, please speak to your doctor for help and they will be able to recommend to you a professional.”
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