If you’re reading this, I hope you are feeling pretty calm; maybe relaxing with a cuppa? Lovely.
Now, since our imagination is our most powerful tool, I’d like you to imagine a different feeling. The feeling of ‘nerves’. Imagine you are about to start a race, and it’s all welling up. Where do you feel it? Is there a churning in your stomach, a tightening in your chest? What’s happening to your heartbeat, your breathing? Maybe like me, you feel the urge to go to the loo even though you know that’s ridiculous; you have only just been. All this mayhem is building up inside, and then you have got to get to the right place on the start, at the right time, with the right kit. You’ve got to get organised, get focused and run off at your Goldilocks pace; not too slow, not too fast. Looking around everyone else looks fit and ready. You start to feel dreadful, literally full of dread and wonder why you are there.
Over the years that I have been competing I have gained some useful insights into nerves, and not only how to deal with these feelings, but how to use them to help yourself. The most well-known psychological model of performance in sport is the ‘arousal curve model’. This states that some arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, our so-called flight-or-fight adrenaline fuelled response, is good for performance - but too much arousal of the sympathetic nervous system is bad. Just like pacing, there is a sweet spot in the middle. In practice, I find this model is overstated and evidence shows it is only partially true, mostly for sports which involve fine skills such as aim. I am not sure about you, but even when really wound up, I can usually still run in the right direction. And the thing about running is that it does not take long once you are over the line to get the balance back. The very act of running signals to your system, “Everything’s okay, this is what you should be doing”. The first lesson about nerves for a runner is there’s no need to worry about feeling nervous, and it won’t stop you running well once underway. That knowledge, in itself, is reassuring.
Feeling nervous is a sign that your body is getting ready to run. All those sensations are normal physiology; your body is warming itself up to the task. We don’t even have to call these feelings nerves if we interpret them as good, helpful, natural, the engine is warming up; then they don’t have to be labelled as unpleasant.
The key is uncoupling two things which are different, but which have become bound up with each other. We evolved this sympathetic nervous system to do an important job - to enable us to survive by escaping from life-endangering threats. And what are we doing here? A race. Something we want to do. Something we have been looking forward to; even though it will be hard, it will be rewarding and fun. We have even paid for the privilege, and a privilege it really is. Those competitors at the start line are not a band of hungry savages (well, mostly not, anyway). When we learn to uncouple the physical biology from our mind’s traditional interpretation of it, we can feel content on the start line. Our instinct to connect adrenaline with threat is deep. When those feelings of dread arise, we know that our ancient instinct is trying to hook up adrenaline with the presence of a threat. But we are smarter than that now. We can be settled in our minds. Those butterflies may be there, and the inability to think and remember anything (where did I put those car keys?) These are good signs. Our blood supply is being diverted away from that energy-guzzling thinking white matter, to where is going to be needed more. The crucial thing about a race is that we are not running away from something, we are running towards something; we want it. This is no threat, it is fulfilment.
Once you get used to the idea that we can happily enter this state, where our nervous system is getting ready to be on ‘go mode’, you can even enjoy it, find it a helpful source of energy and realise it’s not nerves at all. It’s excitement. Now – have you finished that cuppa yet? Maybe it’s time to start planning your next race…