Overcoming Performance Anxiety – Part 1

For my first blog post, I will be writing about something that is foremost in my mind in regards to training at the moment: anxiety

Firstly, a little bit about myself. From a young age, I was always shy and nervous. It took many years of unsubstantiated panic attacks and general discomfort in social situations to finally think, “maybe I should see a doctor.” I was diagnosed with generalized and social anxiety disorder. At the time I was quite alarmed and worried, but as of now it all makes sense and I’ve learned to manage it day-to-day.

Similarly at a young age, I fell in love with cycling because of the speed the pros could go, but when I started to immerse myself more, I found the solitary nature of riding to be so freeing from all the stress and anxiety that I didn’t even realize I had, not to mention the myriad of benefits that exercise gives for the psyche.

When I started working with Shayne, the organization that coaching gave to my life was a frankly immeasurable benefit. Coaching and cycling got me through one of the lowest points of my life. So long as there was an email from TrainingPeaks in the morning telling me what I’d be doing to improve myself, it could have been raining fire outside and I’d be okay.

As a result, it was very easy to get comfortably complacent and watch the training days and months roll by. Of course, with that kind of consistency, you’re gonna see results. And that’s what we all want, right?

Well somewhat unfortunately for me, all those results have propelled me to the elite ranks of track cycling. Prior to races, I’ve been experiencing panic attacks so bad that I’ve considered not racing. Couple this with all the work and sacrifices I’ve made over the years along with a burning desire to have all that effort culminate into good results, and competition is becoming very stressful. So stressful that I’m wondering if the initial benefit of day-to-day anxiety reduction still balances out the amount of stress I feel before and during competition, as well as the frustration I feel afterwards. Even my training is beginning to suffer as I have thoughts of, “What’s the point?” And, “Who made this so damn difficult for me?”

* I should say at this point as a disclaimer that I am not a mental health professional and that this post is not meant to serve as a proper treatment for anyone’s health. It is merely meant to serve as an anecdotal, first-hand account of my attempts to improve my performance and serve as a set of suggestions or as a potential guideline, should you feel that my situation applies to yours. We’re all different athletes, and results may vary 🙂 *

So my treatment needs to be two-pronged: The first needs to deal with the day-to-day stress of training, and the second needs to deal with staying calm in the moments surrounding and during a track race.

A quick search of articles regarding overcoming performance anxiety reveals several consistent actions to take:

 

Before

Accepting anxiety: They are real fears, but not allowing them to control you. I’m going to try to say things like “Man, I’m nervous!” or “This must be really important!” in a sarcastic way. This will allow me not only to express my emotions, but also accept them and frame them in a way that doesn’t let them take control. It’ll also inject a sense of humor into the event. The last time I was nervous was at what was basically a training series. It wasn’t Olympic trials, it wasn’t National Championships. And even if it was, let’s all keep in mind that riding bikes is fun, and we have to make sure that happens at any level of competition.

Meditation/Visualization: Do the mental work to make sure you’re focusing on positive outcomes. Those who have wrestled with depression or anxiety before are undoubtedly familiar with that little voice inside your head telling you that you’re going to fail, or that something bad is going to happen so you shouldn’t try. It can be easy to let those thoughts wash over you and put you in a downward spiral. It takes real work and self-awareness to break that cycle and to think things like, “I’m going to finish in the top ten” or “I’m going to focus on saving my energy and use it for a good result”. It takes effort to do that, but it’s possible.

-Arriving early is arriving on time: Nothing like showing up to an event late and not just warmed up, but exhausted because you’ve been stressed the whole way there. Take necessary time to prepare for a punctual arrival to an event. Pack your car and food the night before, have breakfast made, check the traffic before you leave. I always tell myself, “Do everything you can the night before”

-Training how you race: At GC Coaching, we try to make sure that your workouts prior to your season or event are tailored to how you will be performing and what sort of athlete you are. Muscle Tension Efforts if you’re going to be climbing, or crit specific efforts if you’re going to be racing short, sweet races. While performing these specific efforts, it can be useful to visualize yourself using these efforts during a race. If you’re knocking out 1 minute efforts, imagine them being the last-minute before the final lap. Beyond that, if you are lucky enough to have a winter bike and a racing bike, once the weather is starting to break, maybe pull out the race rig to remind yourself how it handles.

-Have a plan, basic or complex: As mentioned above, visualizing positive outcomes is an important technique. Sometimes putting together a plan can help you put those positive thoughts into actions. Be aware that having an overly complex plan might be difficult to execute and add to your anxiety, though it could be something to focus on that will take you out of the moment. For myself, my plans are always very simple and usually are something like the above such as, “Just find a good wheel to follow and stick tight to it”

 

During

-Focus on the task rather than the outcome: Those plans can also help you focus more on the process of competition, rather than the goal. This can help take your attention off of the nerve-wracking desire to succeed and place it on more important matters, like staying close to a good wheel.

-Forcing positivity: Grab a breath and crack a joke to the guy next to you! Unless you’re breaking away solo, of course. Again, riding bikes is fun, so force yourself to focus on that. Or try to smile. If you’re moving along in a fast pack, think of how quick you’re moving and just how awesome that is. Injecting humor and positivity into the situation can help distract you from your anxiety. 

-Focus on breathing: This will hitch up well with your meditation, during which you should focus on your breathing and pushing away negative thoughts. While this may be hard to do when you’re on the rivet pushing hard, the rhythm of your breathing can be a consistent pattern in the maelstrom of racing.

 

After

-Review:

It can be hard to not be biased against yourself, especially if you’re struggling with anxiety. If you’ve been practicing pulling yourself out of that negative cycle before competition, use that skill to pull yourself out of chastising yourself after a race, regardless of the outcome. As athletes, we should all be pretty well used to listening to what our bodies are telling us. Try to remember areas of the competition in which you felt good. Maybe you were bridging up to a breakaway, or maybe your CX skills work has been paying off and you’re hopping barriers left and right. Realize your strengths and use them to your advantage during your next competition.

Accept your mistakes but don’t dwell on them. Realize what you could do better next time and move on. This can be tough if you’re tough on yourself. Don’t let that downward spiral of negativity happen and realize that you can always do better.

 

Some sources also suggest that analyzing the source of fear or anxiety yields limited success; exploring your fears can validate them. For example: realizing that at the start line you maybe had a bad winter and think that your perceived lack of fitness may result in getting dropped. You may start to focus on all the things that happened over the winter that prevented you from training consistently and rather than focusing on the race itself and using the fitness you have available, you’ll feel negative thoughts that will distract you from the moment

As far as day-to-day stress, we are all no doubt aware that the joy of improving at a sport we love and competing can bring significant stress as well. Work stress affecting our training, not having enough time to train, poor nutrition, the list goes on. As an example, I live in an apartment with two tenants living on the two floors above. Recently they both complained to the landlord about noises coming from the plumbing or furnace or something. We soon put two and two together and realized that the noise was my trainer and rollers. In order to keep everyone happy, I moved my training equipment to a nearby friend’s place. At the time, I was very upset that yet another obstacle was put in my way. Some of these techniques can be used to help mitigate that frustration. Meditation will likely be a useful tool for me. I’ve had it suggested to me in the past by therapists to help ease my anxiety before I raced.

And also focusing on the process rather than the outcome. When climbing a mountain, don’t focus how big it is, just focus on getting to the next switchback. Similarly, if training seems like this huge mountain, and obstacle after obstacle keeps stacking up, making it higher, just focus on throwing your leg over the bike, rather than the hours you have to put in, or the drive you have to make and so on.

My next competition is considered something of a season opener for east coast track cyclists, the Lucarelli and Castaldi Six Days of Kissena, in Queens, New York. The first race is tomorrow! That means I will unfortunately not be able to enact some of the longer-term solutions such as meditation, but I will be trying out these techniques prior to and during my races and I will report back with how it went. Wish me luck!