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How to psych yourself up for race day

Do you suffer from race day nerves? Or perhaps you have a perfect plan for race day, but somehow it goes out of the window when you try to execute it? Michael Caulfield, leading sports psychologist at The Sporting Edge, gives us his top tips.

When we train hard, prepare or practice for a big race or event, we often say to ourselves “I want to be perfect today”, and that can be the most fatal mistake of all. When faced with a challenge where we think we are being judged by others, we tend only to focus on the outcome and result, when all our energy and skill should be placed firmly on the process. Time and time again we are seduced by the ultimate trap of the result which we think, mistakenly, defines our ability.

We now live in an era where we are barely allowed to make a mistake, let alone fail, when actually making mistakes and failure are key parts of the learning process. When preparing for “race day”, you have to practice being in control of your own emotions, and that takes a lot of commitment and time, just like mastering any skill. We are in the main, logical and habitual creatures, but when placed under pressure or when we think we are being judged by an audience, we are prone to let the emotional part of our brain take over. That is when we tend to rush the most important speech or interview of our life, or panic when preparing or running in an important race.

I have yet to meet one elite athlete or player who has not done something bordering on the absurd when performing, as that is when their normal cool, calm self is emotionally hijacked. A voice suddenly appears from nowhere telling us to speed up, to try something you have not practiced or rehearsed, and then even completing the most simple task or skill becomes impossible. Sport is littered with people who have done this on the biggest stage and even though it is humiliating at the time, it is often the best learning experience of them all.

My experience of working in elite performance for over 30 years, is that people need to control their emotions, and to a point, calm down on race day as more races and competitions are lost by people being too “psyched up” for the big day. This may sound odd as we often think the winner is the person or team who are most “up for it”, but I would argue to the contrary. So when preparing for the biggest race of all, I would concentrate on the following list of actions to help you:

  • Set yourself a series of small, achievable goals, not just the final outcome goal of winning or beating a time
  • Remind yourself of all those ‘get there moments’ in training and practice you have undertaken as this will help you when you face difficult moments in the race
  • Practice your self-talk by using language that accentuates what you want to achieve, not what you want to avoid as the brain only really understands positive commands
  • Focus on your breathing when you feel nervous. Long, slow deep centred breaths are still the simplest and best way of controlling nerves and anxiety

And always tell yourself that the process will help you towards your desired outcome, always.

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