The intersection of low self esteem and pre-race anxiety robs us one the one thing we can control: how we feel about ourselves.
How it started
This all started in high school when I joined the cross country and track teams. While I enjoyed being fit, racing produced immense anxiety, to the point of being physically sick and mentally exhausted.
I was not a standout athlete. I made some state meets, but wasn’t recruited by any university. At times, I enjoyed practicing more than competing. I had to continually find external ways of motivating myself, because my internal doubt and anxiety were eating me alive.
Immediately before some races, I would have diarrhea, vomit and feel depressed. When I stepped to the starting line, I felt as if I had been awake for days without sleep. After a race, I had little reinforcement for myself. No performance was ever good enough, and any positive thoughts were fleeting.
15 Years Later, As An Adult
These thoughts have persisted into adulthood, now 15 years later as I ponder running local 5ks for “fun”. My stomach is churning as I write this. In 2013 I did a non-competitive 5k, my first in 13 years. Prior to the race, I was sick in the bathroom for 2 hours.
I want try another race in a couple weeks, but the moment I start searching for one my anxiety level cranks up. So I’ve been doing some thinking, trying to process why my feelings are so irrational, why I can’t give myself positive feedback, why something relatively trivial feels so consequential.
Sifting through the anxiety and self criticisms was difficult, but the following streams of thought sum them up:
If I don’t run XX:XX time, my years spent getting back into shape have been wasted. I will be a wimp, a failure and worthless. There’s little value in anything unless it is objectively impressive. It’s do or die. Don’t get your ass kicked by some schmuck who jogs 3 days a week when you train hard 6 days. Don’t be last, the courtesy clap is embarrassing. Don’t drop out, that’s embarrassing and you’ve already finished several training runs 8 miles or greater. The time you’ve spent exercising should result in XX:XX, if you don’t hit that, WTF is wrong with you???
Know what you can’t control at a race
Examples follow. If eliminated from thought and/or managed with reasonable preparation, they are less worrisome. Of course, some things are simply beyond our personal control no matter what we do:
I can not control: the weather, course conditions, water stations or spectators. The number of other competitors, how fast or slow they are, if they are friendly or complete jerks. If said competition makes me finish in the front, middle, or dead last. If the event is poorly organized, if the start is congested, if the race schedule is changed with little notice.
I can somewhat* control: What food I eat, my bedtime, if I leave my apartment on time, warming up properly, my pre-race blood sugar (Type 1 Diabetes), having extra clothes for the cold, getting directions to the race, bringing enough food and water.
SOMEWHAT is key. Even if I’m hyper prepared down to where I park my car, things can still come up. Part of competing (and training) is occasionally addressing unexpected situations.
Low self esteem and pre-race anxiety robs us one the one thing we can control: how we feel about ourselves
I can COMPLETELY control: How I feel about myself!
No matter what, I am in control of my own self worth.
No time, no measurement, no value judgment from others…NONE of those things – good or bad – can ever give me my own satisfaction. Imagine letting your happiness be determined by race times, a coin flip, compliments from others, stern critics, research data, fitness “standards”, or whatever the crowd is chanting: Yikes, 🙂 you’d rarely feel good about yourself, and your personal identity would be nonexistent.
When I cede control of my self esteem to other people or other standards I have taken away my greatest source of strength; and ironically let something else determine the only thing I can control.
THAT is why anxiety and low self-esteem are so insidious. The obvious, universal truth about ourselves is traded for worry about things beyond our control, largely meaningless to our lives and who we are.
Thousands, even millions may worship a world record holder, showering her with praise and accolades. But away from the racecourse, the words of others won’t make her any happier with herself.
We must realize our self esteem is one of the few things we can control, and why allowing external forces to manage it only sets us up for frustration, despair and ultimately feeling hollow. Take ownership of the most important thing you can control: your thoughts about yourself!
A little pre-race nerves and adrenaline mean you care. Profound anxiety and self doubt, however, mean you are in fear. That fear is unfounded and not real. Liberating yourself from it will not only improve your performance, but also make you feel dramatically more satisfied with life.
Please share any advice, thoughts, or breakthroughs you’ve had to manage pre-race anxiety, low self esteem, or any other irrational fears below.