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“Racing makes me want to die”

There are very few sports as simple as running. It's as straightforward as standing behind a line, then running in a big circle when someone says GO! The first person to cross the line again wins. Despite its simplicity, it's definitely not easy.  It's interesting to see how many athletes feel comfortable playing football or basketball in front of large crowds but are afraid of participating in races. Racing puts you on the spot. Your performance is entirely up to you, and there are no teammates to rely on or blame if things don't go well. After the race, everyone's performance is ranked and made public. If it was a bad race, everyone knows it. This can be a scary experience for any athlete, especially a teenager.

The threat of comparison and the overall pain of racing can create debilitating nervousness for some runners. One of the most difficult tasks we have as coaches is teaching our runners not to fear a bad race but to celebrate the opportunity to race. Races should be a celebration! Between racing and training, the training is far and away the more difficult of the two. It is a daily grind of getting up early to hit the weight room, going for long runs in the heat, flexibility exercises, injury prevention, core work, going to bed early, and watching what you eat, etc. Choosing to train is anything but the easy choice, but we do that nearly every day of the year so we can celebrate for a few moments on race day. When things line up, and our runners perform to their expectations, those days, weeks, and months of training are suddenly all worth it.  Yet, with all the training and preparation, our athletes’ mindset on race day can be the determining factor in a good or bad one.  

Our brains are wired to avoid pain. It's all about self-preservation. While racing isn't a life-or-death situation, there's no denying that pushing your body to its limits is a painful and uncomfortable experience. Between the physical pain of the race and the comparison trap afterward, it's no wonder many athletes shy away from racing. So, mindset is the key to unlocking an athlete's best performance.

It's common for a coach or a parent who isn't participating in the race to downplay its significance. But for a young athlete who is learning to push through pain and build self-confidence without worrying about others' opinions, the race holds great importance. It's important to acknowledge to our athletes that what they are attempting is incredibly tough. It's pointless to tell them that racing is nothing to worry about because it can definitely cause anxiety. Take a look at the runners at the recent Olympic Trials – even experienced athletes in their twenties and thirties looked nervous! Instead of trying to avoid or dismiss the difficulty of racing, we should encourage our runners to recognize the challenge for what it is. By acknowledging the tough nature of racing, we can better prepare our minds for the task. We should also explain that feeling nervous when faced with a tough challenge is normal and natural. When we perceive the race as a challenge, our brain instructs our body to release adrenaline in preparation for the task. This results in that fluttery sensation and "butterflies in the belly." While these feelings may not be pleasant, they are crucial for a runner's success. They serve a purpose.  Before a race, it's crucial that our athletes understand the importance of maintaining a positive mindset. We emphasize the significance of focusing on the team rather than individual performance, both before and during the race. When runners start feeling demotivated, it can lead to a negative downward spiral of worry. To counteract this, we encourage them to shift their focus to their teammates. They can check in on their teammates and offer help if needed. By prioritizing serving each other, our runners not only foster a positive team environment but also generate positive energy for themselves. We simply encourage them to "share good energy."

One effective strategy we use to help our athletes overcome nervousness is thorough preparation. As the greatest basketball player of all time and there is no argument, Michael Jordan, once said, "Work ethic eliminates fear." From the very beginning, we strive to connect everything we do in practice to the race. This includes our warmup routine, the structure of our workouts, visualization, and our constant emphasis on teamwork over individual performance. We dedicate a significant amount of time to discussing how to prepare for and manage a race. When our runners become consistent with their training routine, improve their work ethic, manage their time effectively, and prioritize serving others, the challenge of a race becomes less intimidating and more of a rewarding celebration of their hard work.

So do we play music in the tent before we go race?  Absolutely!  Do we make a big deal about kids running a PR or making varsity, or even finishing a 5k without walking?  Hecks to the yes!  Do we scream nonsense like wildcats while they race and celebrate like crazy at camp after the race is over?  You bet!  Because racing isn’t life-or-death.  Racing is and should be a celebration!

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