Q: How to Deal with Crippling Pressure?

Hi Lauren,

In a month I will be starting cross country at a division 1 college, I’m nervous, so nervous that I can’t even imagine finishing a race. and the thing is, its a real possibility. Over the course of the two seasons in high school I ran, I dropped out of four races, maybe more. I just feel like I can’t get passed this worry to get to my true potential. It makes me dog the race because its obviously better to finish slow than not at all. If I felt the pressure in high school, how do I deal with it in college?

-Ally

A:

nerves

oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh…

Dear Ally,

I’ve dealt with that too, and it sucks.  Three years ago I crumbled under pressure on America’s biggest stage: the USA Championships.  With 600 meters to go, I stopped and walked, and eventually talked myself into finishing (though well behind my potential.)

Your racing is most likely carrying too much of your identity, so if you fail, in your mind it has consequences for who you are as a person. If you read about adolescent development (which lasts until you are in your mid-20’s by the way) the defining area of growth during that age is finding your identity.  In order to do this, you start to see yourself as you fit in with larger groups and systems….no longer an oblivious girl with dirty knees and a big smile just running for fun, you are hyper-aware of your competitors, of the expectations of others, of what’s at stake.  In my opinion, its the biggest growing pain for athletes.  Until you learn to master this, it will own you.

The way this translates into your running is as follows:  your races become little tests and challenges for you to find out more about yourself as a competitor and as a person. You start seeing people around you doing things like dropping out, and they get labeled and talked about by other people.  You see that and you think, “Oh man, I don’t want to be like that.”  You see their actions and draw conclusions about their identity.

Dropping out of a race does not determine who you are.  It is simply something you have done.  It is a behavior.

You are not a drop out.  You dropped out.

Once you disconnect those actions from your identity as a person, you have the power to change your racing.  Once you realize that your racing doesn’t define you, there is way less pressure.  Fear is gradually replaced by excitement and a simple desire to see what you can do on the day.  You need to get back to the basics, girl.

So I recommend you do the following:

1.  Take out a piece of paper and write down what you like about running.

2.  Write what you like about competing.

3.  Write down the way that you have felt before your best races.

Keep it really simple, and cross out anything that you wrote down that is out of your control (i.e. “winning”).  The rest of the information should be tacked up on your bedroom wall for the entire summer.  If you focus on those basic things, you will perform much better.  If it worked for me, it can work for you.

I have a saying that I repeat to myself whenever I get really fearful of competition or start to feel too much pressure.  I focus on my breathing, picture something calm like a breeze going through palm trees, and let this run through my head on a loop until I feel better:

Running is not who I am; its something I do; its something I love.

You always have the power to change your behavior.  Now get busy so you can go out and kick some butt this fall!

Lauren