Race anxiety is a reality for many runners. It can be a humbling experience, but there are some ways to minimize that feeling. More specifically, this involves training your mind to handle the mental and emotional challenges of competition. It’s all about equipping yourself with strategies to minimize or cope with pre-race nerves, outside distractions, and the pressures that come with competing.

For runners, mental preparation often involves techniques like visualization, positive self-talk, and goal-setting to improve their mental toughness and resilience. Without mental preparation, even the most physically prepared athletes can falter under the pressure of competition, losing focus and failing to perform at their best.

Think of mental toughness as the hat for your cowboy boots. It’s the key to unlocking your full potential and achieving greatness on the track. So, if you want to succeed in track and field, don’t neglect your mental preparation. It’s just as important as physical training, if not more so!

Mental Skills for Success in Track and Field

  • Goal-setting: Setting clear, specific and realistic goals helps athletes stay focused on what they want to achieve and motivates them to work towards those goals. Begin with a goal that you have a high probability of achieving. For example, you might enter a cross country race with three goals in mind: to prepare correctly with a good breakfast and a decent warm-up, to run the first mile within 10 seconds of your target pace, and to finish the race faster than your previous time on the same course. It’s important not to define your goals in terms of what others control. For example, it would not be a good idea to set a personal goal to finish 20 seconds in front of a teammate. You focus on you.

  • Visualization: Imagining yourself performing at your best, feeling confident and in control, helps you mentally prepare for competition and can improve your performance. If you are racing an 800, maybe visualize a quick start, a nice path to the front after reaching the break and hearing a split of 68 seconds at 400m. Feeling powerful and in control as you ride on the outside shoulder of the leader just waiting for your moment to make a move. Imagine success and enduring the discomfort that you know will come during lap two.

  • Positive self-talk: Using positive and encouraging self-talk can boost confidence and reduce anxiety, helping athletes perform at their best. Sometimes, this can be a simple mantra repeated when needed: “Let’s go!” or “No quit!” or “I got this!” Think of something simple that will help you get through the tough spots.

  • Focus: Staying focused on the task at hand, blocking out distractions, and maintaining concentration is essential for success in track and field. Don’t let your mind wander to places that it shouldn’t. It’s a race, you’ve got a job to do.

  • Managing pre-competition nerves: Learning strategies to manage pre-race nerves, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness, can help athletes feel more calm and confident before a race. Once you find something that works well for you, make it a routine. One of the most gifted 400m runners I ever coached, a NH state champion, liked to read science fiction books right up until event check-in.

Exercises for Improving Mental Skills

Goal Setting:

  • Set specific and process-oriented goals, rather than just outcome-based goals. For example, instead of just aiming to win a race, set a goal to improve your technique or shave seconds off your personal record. Or even to hit your split on lap 1 of a 4 lap race.

  • Write down your goals and review them regularly to stay focused and motivated. Always try to connect your goal and the process required to achieve them.

  • Break down larger goals into smaller, manageable steps to make them less daunting and easier to achieve.

Visualization:

  • Create a detailed script in your mind of your ideal performance, incorporating all of your senses to make it feel as real as possible.

  • Visualize yourself overcoming obstacles or setbacks, and maintaining a positive attitude even when things don’t go as planned.

  • Practice visualization regularly, both in training and before competitions. After visualizing your success once or twice, let it go. You’re ready. Don’t dwell on it for too long.

Positive self-talk:

  • Identify and challenge negative self-talk, replacing it with positive affirmations or power statements. For example, if you catch yourself thinking “I can’t do this”, replace it with “I am strong and capable”.

  • Use positive self-talk to boost confidence and motivation, and to counteract any negative thoughts or doubts that may arise before or during a race.

  • Practice positive self-talk regularly, both in training and in everyday life. “Let’s ******* do this!”

Focus:

  • Develop a pre-race routine that helps you get in the zone and stay focused, such as a specific warm-up or stretching routine. Many athletes prefer to listen to the same pre-race soundtrack each time they compete.

  • Use cues to help you stay focused during a race, such as focusing on your breathing or repeating a mantra to yourself.

  • Practice mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to help you stay calm and centered when distractions or anxiety arise. Find your happy place.

Managing pre-competition nerves:

  • Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to help you manage pre-race nerves and anxiety.

  • Develop a pre-race routine that helps you feel calm and confident, such as listening to music or doing a light warm-up jog.

  • Use positive self-talk to counteract any negative thoughts or doubts that may arise before a race. Remind yourself of your training and preparation, and focus on the excitement and opportunity of the race ahead. You are there to run with your competitors, not against them.

Coaches: Creating a Positive Team Culture

Creating a team culture that prioritizes mental well-being is crucial for the success and well-being of athletes. When athletes feel supported and cared for by their team and coaches, they are more likely to feel motivated, confident, and resilient, which can translate into better performance on the track. Additionally, athletes who struggle with mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, or stress, can benefit from being a part of a supportive team with good friends and trusted adults.

Here are some tips and strategies for coaches to promote mental wellness within their team:

  • Foster open communication: Create a culture of open communication by encouraging athletes to share their thoughts, feelings, and concerns with coaches and teammates. This can be achieved by providing opportunities for athletes to talk one-on-one with coaches. Even a quick fist bump after practice or a “hello” as they walk down to the track can open the door.

  • Educate athletes about mental health: Educate athletes about mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and stress, and provide resources and support for those who may be struggling. This can involve referring athletes with school counselors. A coach doesn’t want to take on this responsibility.

  • Create a supportive and inclusive environment: Create an environment that is supportive and inclusive, where all athletes feel valued and respected, regardless of their background or abilities. This can involve addressing and preventing bullying, discrimination, or harassment. Also, be sure to spend time with, and pay attention to, every athlete under your supervision.

  • Encourage self-care: Encourage athletes to prioritize self-care and mental health as part of their overall wellness routine. This can involve promoting healthy habits such as regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and adequate sleep, as well as promoting mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga. Often times, a parent is willing to help out with Saturday yoga sessions. Look for your community resources.

  • Lead by example: Coaches can lead by example by prioritizing their own mental wellness, seeking support when needed, and modeling healthy coping strategies. By demonstrating the importance of mental wellness and self-care, coaches can inspire and motivate their athletes to do the same.

Mental preparation is an essential component of success in track and field. By developing mental skills such as goal-setting, visualization, positive self-talk, and stress reduction techniques, athletes can improve their performance and prevent injuries. By addressing the mental well-being of athletes, coaches can not only improve their performance on the track but also promote the overall health and happiness of their athletes.


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