Michael Phelps has been candid about his mental health struggles in the past and this week the documentary The Weight of Gold debuted on HBO. The documentary takes a look at how depression and anxiety impact elite athletes competing in the Olympics. While I have never competed anywhere near that level, I have been in competitive sport over the course of my life. I have also spent a fair amount of time around elite athletes. Because of this I can identify with some of the things that Phelps was saying as he was interviewed about the documentary. I have also struggled with anxiety and depression for the better part of 25 years.
Nerves before the start of a race are pretty normal. Being a bit nervous and anxious before the start is actually a good thing. It shows that you care and are invested in what you do. Where it can become a problem or interfere with performance is when you become sick, nauseous to the point you can’t focus or have thoughts that cause you to self-sabotage.
Often anxiety is solely tied to performance. If this is the case, there are several strategies that can be effective in managing performance anxiety. Let’s look at a few now:
1. Embrace Your Butterflies – Instead of trying to fight against your anxiety or trying to will it to not happen (neither are likely to be effective) instead try to lean into the idea that it is going to happen and don’t try to resist it. Begin to look at ways that you can train to manage the anxiety so when race day comes, it isn’t as impactful. How can you work with the nerves?
2. Ask Yourself “What Is the Worst That Can Happen”? – Normally I would be advising you to picture your best-case scenario and to visualize that. When it comes to dealing with anxiety it can be helpful to do the opposite. Imagining the worst-case scenario and letting your brain walk through these challenges can help you when it comes time to perform. You have already practiced and are prepared for the worst. This can help you feel more in control and can lessen the anxiety in the moment.
3. Take A Deep Breath – Actually take a bunch of them. I have talked in past posts about the power of controlled breathing on your central nervous system. When you feel anxious it is often because your body is releasing adrenaline causing your thoughts to speed up and as a result you feel a bit out of control. The adrenaline is helpful if you are actually performing. It is less helpful if you are trying to focus and getting ready to perform. The breathing exercise that I have found to be helpful for me involves inhaling for a count of 4 through your nose, holding the breath for a count of 7, and then exhaling for a count of 8 through your mouth. You should try to inhale deep into your belly, not shallow into your chest. I usually do a count of 4.
It is normal to experience nervousness or anxiety before a race. As I mentioned above, this means you are invested, and you care. If you need help managing your performance anxiety or anything else related to performance, get in touch. I offer a free initial consultation where we review your individual situation to best assess how I can help. Click the “schedule call” link to book your call today.