With the “big-meet” part of the season coming around the corner for many high school and collegiate athletes, it’s time to address a bad habit that is an issue for many hurdlers: negative chatter. Many times, as pressure mounts and the stakes rise, we overwhelm ourselves with negative thoughts that prevent us from performing at our best. While it’s easy for coaches to advise athletes to “stay positive,” such advice rarely does any good. Athletes need practical strategies for dealing with the emotional stress of big-meet competition and maintaining a healthy frame of mind in the weeks, days, hours, and minutes leading up to a big race. Such strategies are what this article intends to provide.
Not to state the obvious, but all negative mental chatter stems from a lack of self-confidence. So an important step in freeing oneself from negative thoughts lies in identifying the root cause of the lack of confidence. Does it come from knowing that the athletes you’ll be running against have beaten you before? Does it come from knowing the weather conditions will not be favorable? Does it come from an unfavorable lane assignment? Does it come from knowing you’ll be racing at a venue where you have performed poorly in the past?
Really, none of the above reasons can be root causes of a lack of self-confidence (sorry for the fake-out). They can only be by-products of a lack of self-confidence. Think about it: being afraid of your opponents, being afraid of the wind or the rain or the heat, being afraid of running in an outside lane, and being afraid of repeating a poor performance are all symptoms of low self-esteem, not causes of it.
The only way to identify the source of your lack of confidence is to listen to your negative chatter. Don’t judge it, don’t hate it, don’t suppress it, don’t ignore it. Listen to it. So, to answer the question from the second paragraph, the root cause of a lack of self-confidence is fear. The first step to overcoming that fear is to figure out what it is you’re afraid of. Are you afraid of losing? Of a whole season being wasted? Of all your hard work going down the drain? Of letting down your coach and teammates? Of not qualifying for the next round? Of how you’ll feel after the race? Of hitting hurdles? Of falling over hurdles? Of your steps being off?
One thing you have to understand is that fear is natural. Remember the lesson we’re supposed to learn from the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz? – that he did have courage all along. Novelist Mark Twain once said that “Courage is not the absence of fear; it is acting in spite of it.” So once you have identified what you’re afraid of, you’ve already taken a huge weight off your shoulders. Unaddressed fears insidiously undermine your will to succeed. You don’t necessarily even know that it’s happening. You think you’re being positive when all you’re really doing is hiding your fears from yourself. When it’s time to race, these fears come roaring to the forefront of your mind, where you have no control over them. That’s why it’s so important, once you’ve identified your fears, to own them. Instead of denying them, own them. Accept them for what they are.
Trying to block out your fears doesn’t work. It’s ineffective, it’s inefficient, and it’s emotionally exhausting. Using “tunnel vision” doesn’t work. The truly confident goes in the opposite direction of tunnel vision by being aware of all possibilities, all potentialities, but fearing none of them. When, for example, a Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan rises to take a last-second shot, he knows there’s a possibility he could miss. He knows he might let down his whole team, his whole city. But he’s not afraid of that. In one of the recent NBA playoff games, Duncan hit a three-pointer to tie the game and send it into overtime. Duncan hadn’t made a three-pointer all year, but he made that one. But the real reason to be in awe of him is not because he made it, but because he took the shot at all. That’s confidence. That’s fearlessness. That’s courage.
Once you’ve identified your fears, and have taken ownership of them, the next step is to transform them into something new. Change the language, change the vocabulary of the mental chatter. For example,
“I hope I don’t fall” becomes “I know I might fall, but I am not afraid of falling.”
“I hope it doesn’t rain” becomes “It might rain, but I will do my best in spite of the rain.”
“I hope I make the top three” becomes “I will put everything on the line today, and if that doesn’t get me in the top three, I’ll live with it.”
By changing the phrasing, you change your mindset. By changing your mindset, you free your mind of worry, of the illusions of failure and disappointment, and you therefore allow yourself to literally run as fast as you can. To me, telling yourself, “I will win this race” or “I will make the top three” is not positive thinking, but negative thinking disguised as positive thinking. Anytime you tell yourself you will accomplish something, you’re creating the fear that you won’t accomplish it.
On the day of the big race, it’s important to stick to routine. Whatever your usual warm-up is, do it. Whomever you usually hang out with, hang out with them. If you usually eat a banana before leaving the house or hotel, eat a banana before leaving the house or hotel. Routine calms the mind and adds an essential sense of familiarity. If it’s a meet where the check-in procedures differ from what you’re used to, make yourself familiar with them before arriving at the venue, just as a means of minimizing the distractions. In the moments leading up to the race, keep moving – walk around, shake out your legs, shake out your arms. Be conscious of your breathing and make sure you inhale and exhale slowly, deeply. The last thing you want to do is just stand still. A rigid body results in a tense, nervous mind.
As with anything that requires skill, learning to release the negative chatter and transform it into a positive, calm state of mind takes much practice. If your nerves get the best of you this week, keep working and see if you do better next week. Practice every day, taking note of the thoughts that run through your mind, observing how you react to various situations – on the track and off. The better you know yourself, the better equipped you are to deal with stressful situations.
I always tell my athletes to execute the things they’ve been working on in practice. How you race should be an extension of how you practice. When you look at it that way, you don’t have to hope for some type of miraculous performance or out-of-body experience when the gun goes off. Just do what you’ve practiced. Trust that your training has put you where you need to be to excel. You can never know what’s going to happen when the gun goes off. You have to have the faith that you will rise to the occasion. You have no proof that you will, you have no assurances that you will. So you have to have faith. You have to believe in yourself.
© 2008 Steve McGill