To handle anxiety, think negatively

Racing (and living) are ruled by external factors. We can’t control much of what happens around us. There are no guarantees that things will work out the way you plan.

Mike Tyson said it well, “If you’re not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you.”

Premortem: a proactive technique to envision what could go wrong, what will go wrong, and planning strategies (mental and physical) to address these disasters.

  • Always prepare for disruption and work that into your plan.
  • Prepare for the worst so you are ready for anything.
  • If you rehearsed what could go wrong, you won’t be caught by surprise.
  • If you are ready to be disappointed, you won’t be.

I bring all of this ‘negativity’ up because we are reaching a point in our season where we RACE! We prepare, plan, and hope for a good outcome. We spend lots of time on positive visualization. Practicing your PERFECT race in your head over and over. And there is a lot of benefit in this.  But, I suggest you also think about what could go wrong and how you will respond if (and when) things go wrong.

Below is an article from Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg’s newsletter.  I thought it was relevant to the topic, so I re-posted it below. Check out their newsletter for other valuable insight.

When it comes to pressure in sport, there are few things worse than an Olympic track final. It’s you, alone in your head, on the starting line with thousands of people in the stands and millions back home watching on TV. There’s a hush that falls over the stadium before every race, almost as if to tempt nerves to swell to the top of your mind.

Mike Marsh is an Olympic Champion, winning the 200-meter dash and 4x100m relay at the 1992 games. When he recently came to speak to the University of Houston track team, the first question that was asked was a predictable one: “How did you handle the nerves, anxiety, and pressure of the games?”

Marsh had a simple, yet profound routine. The morning of every important race, he asked himself two questions:

1. Realistically, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
2. Can I handle that?

Yes, the day of the big race, Marsh started by looking at the negative, not the positive. While pop psychologists might question his sanity, Marsh went through this reflective exercise for a reason. Often, a fear of failure is what holds us back and contributes to our pre-race anxiety. Our fears are often ambiguous and ill-defined; we fear failing without actually thinking about what that encompasses. Is it the end of the world if we get last? Will we die or be fired? Will we not be able to provide for our family?

By acknowledging what the realistic worst-case scenario was, Marsh provided a degree of clarity to an uncertain situation. His mind couldn’t ruminate on a bunch of absurd scenarios.His second question is just as important. He is eliminating the concern entirely, by informing his mind that he has the capabilities and resources to handle the situation.

By acknowledging the worst possible outcome AND then asking if he could handle that, Marsh was preventing his mind from spiraling out of control towards the negative. This technique allowed put Marsh in a situation where he wasn’t trying to ignore or deflect the anxiety or pressure, but instead attack it head-on. He took a situation that breeds uncertainty and gave himself full control.

When we are on the starting line or about to face an audience, our gut reaction is to overwhelm our mind with positivity. Yet, if we can take a moment and acknowledge the downside, it can often free us up to perform to our potential.