The alarm goes and my eyes blink open faster than normal. That familiar sick feeling in the stomach, that jittery, jumpy heart, the mind that starts racing as soon as the eyes open.
It’s race day.
This last month I've had the opportunity to compete at NSW State Short Course and Australian National Short Course Championships in Sydney. After 18 months out of the pool and almost 2 years out from competition, it’s equal parts nerves and excitement. I’m also about to compete in my first international competitions in Berlin, Athens and Budapest and I expect all those old race feelings to come back ten-fold.
Nerves are always part of racing; they have been an ever-present companion throughout my career. One of the things I get asked most is: ‘how to deal with nerves?’ And it doesn’t matter whether you’re going to your first swim meet or at the Olympics; about to give a school presentation or speaking in front of hundreds of people; the nerves can feel exactly the same.
This is why I love this question so much; it doesn’t matter what you choose to do in life, at some point you’ll have to deal with nerves and learning how to do it is so widely applicable.
The first thing I’d say is that everyone is different, and you’ll have to find your own recipe that works for you. Here are my top three tips for dealing with nerves on race day.1. Embrace don’t suppress
Rather than trying to pretend my nerves don’t exist, I embrace that they’re there. Nerves mean my heart is working pumping blood fast round my body, it means there is adrenaline in my veins, it means all my large muscle groups are oxygenated and ready to go. Nerves mean I care about this race. And that’s a good thing. So rather than try and make them go away (they won’t go anyway, it’s a waste of energy), I get excited that the nerves are here. They mean I’m ready to race
2. Focus on Process
It’s all very well to say that nerves mean my body is ready to race, but what about my mind? My mind is busy imagining me false starting, or missing a turn, or winning. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s more terrifying, the things that could go wrong or what the result would be if they went right. This is where I pull my mind back to process. Thinking about a result doesn’t help, thinking about what I need to do next is all I can control. If I’m stretching, I focus on stretching, if I’m activating, I focus on that. In warm up I focus on my stroke, what do I need to do next to get my body ready. Some people call this mindfulness, and it comes with practice whether that’s meditation or practicing it in training everyday or (my favourite) a bit of both.
Some nerves may make my body ready to race, but they can also be too much. This race is not actually life and death, and my body needs to know it’s not in real danger. I need to not have a panic attack, or rush my first ten meters of my race, or throw up behind the blocks (all of which sometimes feel like very likely scenarios). Deep, resonant breaths help me tell my body that it’s safe, there’s somet
hing big happening but it’s going to be okay.
For those who have subscribed to my newsletter, I also share a bonus tip that I learnt to use at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Whatever your ‘race’ looks like, I hope some of these tips can help with managing nerves.