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Attention … Go!

BY TAYLOR BROWN
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

Let’s do a visualization exercise together.

Close your eyes and imagine you’re at a championship regatta. Your eight is rowing up to the start line. In the boat, there is quiet intensity.

After you’ve finished your warm-up, your coxswain begins to navigate toward the stake boats. You start to feel some anticipation, nervousness, or even fear of the impending pain. Your breathing gets a little shallower and you notice the distinct feeling of nausea.

You’re locked onto the stake boat now, and the feelings intensify. Your body, anticipating the pain cave it’s about to enter, has started pumping out cortisol and you realize that you now feel nothing at all, you’ve gone numb. You start to wonder, Why am I feeling this way?” 

Then, “ATTENTION! GO!”

Now, open your eyes. We’ve all been at the start line before a race and experienced similar things. These experiences can either throw you off or not, and it all comes down to the way you choose to respond. One thing is clear: If you don’t think about how to respond before you get to the start line, then you’re not setting yourself up for success.

Here are three strategies for managing nerves while sitting at the start line.

Control the Controllables

A common expression in sports is “control the controllables.”  A good piece of advice for sure, but what exactly is in your control? If you feel nervous at the start line, are those nerves in your control or are they acting on their own?

Internal experiences such as emotions and feelings happen outside our conscious control, but you can control how you respond, which may influence your performance.

If you respond to nerves by questioning yourself, then it may result in lower performance. Or you can acknowledge the nerves, focus on your breathing, and visualize the race plan, which may result in better performance. 

Nerves may not be in your direct control, but your response is.

Come Back to Your Breath

If your nerves are involuntary, then what can you do to influence them?

Hack your nervous system!

Breathing in specific ways can regulate your nervous system and influence the intensity of your nerves.

One way is called diaphragmatic breathing. In this kind of breathing, you inhale slowly through your nose, drawing the air to the bottom of your lungs and relaxing your belly. Let your abdomen, sides, and back expand. Then slowly exhale through your mouth.

Diaphragmatic breathing will activate a relaxation response, and your nervousness likely will subside or dissipate altogether.

Reframe and Re-engage

Viewing a situation from another perspective is called reframing.

After breathing, you can choose how to view the nerves. A particularly helpful strategy for athletes is to ask themselves, “What are these nerves telling me?”

A productive answer is These nerves are telling me that I’m excited and that this race is important to me, because if it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t be feeling this way.”

Nerves are just our body’s way of saying this means something. Reframing the nerves in this way may motivate you to perform, reduce your level of fear, and produce a racing mindset

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Yes, nerves are expected, but they do not have to influence your performance negatively. Prepare how you’d like to respond to your nerves and then at the start line, put your plan into action.

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