How can I mentally prepare for a big race?
Is your head ready for the big day? While you may not be competing in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London starting July 27, you may be getting ready for a triathlon, half or full marathon, a tennis match in your club, a swim meet or even a race at an upcoming family picnic. Regardless of the size of the audience, you want to win – or at least be seriously competitive.
I coach world-class athletes, young team and individual sports competitors and fitness enthusiasts, and one thing is clear – complete preparation for any upcoming competitive event includes keeping the mind strong and in control. When your mind “gives in” to negative messages three-quarters through an endurance challenge, you will slow down … and inevitably fail to achieve your goal.
“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” Thomas Jefferson, third U.S. President offered this observation years ago, and it’s still relevant to mental preparation for a race or any other endeavor in life.
It takes a well-developed competitive routine, desire, dedication and large doses of self-discipline to be wholly mentally prepared for a sports event. Without being entirely convinced that you are as ready as you can possibly be for whatever comes up on race day, your motivation, confidence, focus and physical abilities to handle the psychological demands of the race will let you down. Properly engaged mental focus will give you the added fuel of positive emotion, thoughts and drive.
Here are the top 4 mental barriers that I’ve found can derail performance on the big day:
1. Poor internal and external motivation and commitment
What’s the real reason you are in the event? Is it to satisfy yourself, to elevate your status, to increase your fame or wealth? Are you running because you love the sport and the challenges? Are parents pushing in helpful or destructive ways? Have you set SMART goals for yourself or are they someone else’s? Without the right motivation and commitment, you won’t develop and adhere to your physical and mental preparation plans.
2. Lack of self-confidence, negative self-talk and consequent anxiety
Are you convincing yourself that you “can’t win…finish…do well?” Perhaps you need to see more actual progress in your training, along with more positive self-talk healthy support from others. Skip the “all or nothing” self-talk and way of thinking and don’t confuse your past performances with self-ratings for future performances. Anxiety is simply predicting the future with gloom and doom, so focus on relaxation, deep breathing and music. Avoid dire predictions of “horrible” results – you really can’t predict the future anyway. Opt for common phrases in your self-talk along the way like, “Good job … it’s not that much further … almost on the downhill side … not long before the stadium filled with my friends comes into sight.”
Ever try to NOT think about the “Pink Elephant?” The reason you can’t is because first you have to think about it in order to NOT think about it. Distractions come almost entirely from irrational, ungrounded worry. You compare yourself to your competitors, focus on irrelevant details that you’re concerned about, anticipate conditions that may not be present on race day, and erroneously believe that if you think about them then you can control them. Here’s where visualization, mental imagery and posted reminders in your gym bag can all help. Mentally go through an entire race, from waking up on race day and seeing what you’ll eat, how you’ll warm up, all the way to the finish line. Go through the event in a positive way; rehearse every step, swim, T1, bike, T2, run and finish. Break the big picture into little pieces to keep you focused on your goals, not irrelevant distractions.
4. Insufficient preparation
Being poorly prepared can be caused by having the wrong coach, an undisciplined or unstructured training program, a regimen that trains for the wrong conditions and improper nutrition preparation. A lack of mental preparation includes not figuring out in a very detailed way, your desired goals. What mindset do you visualize for yourself throughout the race? For example, in an Ironman, somewhere between 60-90 miles of biking it’s common for the human mind to give in to despair. Preparing in advance for how you will re-think and deal with it (it normally passes at about 100 miles, so hang in), will turn this seeming crisis into an expected challenge you are prepared to handle. Detailed goal setting, positive and rational self-talk, mental imagery, familiarity with the course, relaxation methods, concentration, focus skills to avoid distractions – these are all part of complete mental preparation.
The optimal zone mindset is central to a successful performance. It builds self-confidence, helps you control your mental energy throughout the race, provides focus on the essential elements of your competition, and creates a sense of familiarity as you move through, in reality, what you’ve rehearsed so many times, in imagery.
Begin with the end in mind as you prepare yourself for a big event. How will you need to think and feel to do your best? That’s the key—striving to do your best. What is the right “mindset” to achieve this goal? How do you see yourself feeling and thinking at the start line? What are you focusing on that jettisons you toward doing your best? You might compare your previous best and worst performances and see how the answers to these questions change. What does your optimal mindset look, sound and feel like? What cue words do you hear in your optimal mental self-talk? What do you need to do to be mentally and physically ready along the race from warm-up to finish? As you rehearse, listen to yourself positively comment on your progress as you pass landmarks you’ve “seen” in your mental imagery. These strategy rehearsal tips will help you with energy management, and the mental and physical challenges during the race and in post-race recovery.