By Oliver Brinsford - WellBe&Co Trainer & Sports Psychologist
Mental barriers in sport or other recreational sport events are something that many people experience and struggle with. A big factor for many individuals is the feelings of performance anxiety before taking part in an event - that overthinking, mental negative self talk we so often find ourselves succumbing too - can be completely crippling and can result in a bad performance if left unchecked.
However there are a few simple coping techniques that can be used to your advantage. But first things first.
What is Performance Anxiety?
Performance anxiety manifests and stems from various stressors for that particular individual in that particular scenario. For example, in the case of a running event, someone might have thoughts of not finishing the race. This then can quickly spiral and feed other more ingrained and personal fears like the fear of letting yourself and potentially other people down in the process.
Others may have worries about not feeling their best during an event, not beating a previous best time or setting too high targets for oneself. All these stressors can add up and become extremely overwhelming prior to performance, so much so that your on-the-day performance actually becomes hindered.
4 Simple ways to help you overcome these mental barriers
1. Switch from negative to positive self-talk
Negative thoughts won’t get you anywhere, and certainly won’t get you anywhere faster. Worrying about what might happen is mentally and emotionally taxing and doesn’t serve your end goal - which is to run the best race you can on the day.
Instead of flooding your mind with negative thinking like: “What if I burnout halfway”, “Everyone else is fitter than I am” or “I should just give up now”, rather put a positive and constructive spin on your thoughts like, “I’m ready for this challenge”, “I've trained hard for this race’” and “I’ve got this”.
2. Use visualization before a race
Visualization is a very powerful tool that is used by many athletes all over the world. It works by helping you focus your mind on all the positive aspects of the race. For example,you may picture yourself crossing the finish line or even something simple like the feeling of the road on your shoes or the sound of your breathing.
Visualization is all based around your senses - hearing, touch, sight, smell and taste - and using them to rehearse your specific sport or race before partaking.
Try it right now!
Close your eyes and picture yourself running your favorite outdoor route. Imagine the sound of your feet as they hit the ground; the feeling of the sun as it warms your skin, the distinct scent of earth and fresh air, and the cooling sensation of a big gulp of water at the halfway point.
3. Incorporate a pre-performance routine
Having a pre-performance routine helps use systematic series of mental and physical cues to help you get focused on the task or event at hand. For running this could include:
These pre-performance routines and habits can be key in helping you feel mentally calm and physically primed for any run or race.
4. Stay focused with specific self-instructions
Anxiety as mentioned is very unhelpful when it comes to performance as it makes us focus on what might go wrong rather than what we actually have to do (the challenge ahead). A useful tool to help counteract this is to ask yourself: “what is it that I actually have to do right now?”. Giving yourself specific and actionable commands aids in hindering any unwanted anxiety-provoking interpretations of the situation.
For instance, next time during a race try using actionable commands like: “deep breaths”, “don’t forget to use your arms”, “relax your shoulders“ and “we are halfway there, so let's pick up the pace slightly”. These small cues help to avoid the trap of confusing the facts of the situation and keeps you focused on the task ahead.
It doesn’t need to be an uphill battle
Incorporating these expert mental tips and tools will not only help you improve your running, but also free up more mental space so you can actually enjoy the running experience the way you should.