I came across an article in the NYT Magazine today titled Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart? While it has an education-focus, I found myself thinking ohhh, that and that and that can also apply to racing.
Thinking back to my childhood, I'm pretty sure my parents would say Oh Caroline? She is definitely a worrier. I remember being in my grandfather's small motor boat when I was about 7 years old and when we were in the channel on the way back to the small bay where he docked his boat, the motor died. We were in the middle of the [narrow] channel, with land only about 30 yards away on either side of us. We had oars. We weren't far from the bay. There was NOTHING to panic about, yet I spent the rest of the time screaming "help, help" to the other boats that were passing by, absolutely convinced we were never going to make it back to the bay and we'd be lost and perish at sea. After that, I think I became my grandfather's last choice as a boat companion, ha!
And then there were the numerous times in high school where I found myself so stressed out about an upcoming cross-country or track meet that I didn't look forward to competing. I'd also get a bit worked up about tests or big papers (but when it came down to the wire with studying and writing, I'd stop procrastinating and just get it done). In short, growing up I didn't thrive on competition.
Anyway, how do these anecdotes relate to the point of the article? Researchers have found that "our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors - how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses. There is also a genetic component: One particular gene referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable - more of a warrior." The article then goes on to talk about how, if dealt with correctly, short-term stress can actually be beneficial to people when they are in a competition. Alot of this change is mental - reframing the way you approach a stressful situation. The article gets into the science behind it (I'm not going to), but the short of it is this - training yourself to perform well in a stressful situation and not avoiding those situations are the best way for worriers to reframe their response, "training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier's curse." Instead of seeing stress as detrimental, it could instead be viewed as energizing and a way to make yourself focus. I remember in college I felt like I did my best research and writing for classes when I was up against a deadline. I was forced to focus.
As I mentioned earlier, I used to get very anxious the day of my cross-country and track meets in high school. I wasn't a standout in any of my events, my coaches weren't terrible people who put undue pressure on me, I put the pressure on myself. I was afraid to fail and I absolutely did not thrive on competition. Same with my small stint on the diving team in college (I. Was. TERRIBLE). I took a break from organized sports for a few years before doing my first marathon in 2003 - the Vermont City Marathon. This was the first time I was doing a race/sport simply because I wanted to - something just for myself. There was no outside pressure, it wasn't going to matter what my finish time was - I was doing it simply to do it (I also expected the marathon to be a one-and-done for me, a mere cross-this-off-the-bucket-list). I was very nervous the day of the race, but it was a different kind of nervous; I was excited to see how I would do in this unchartered territory. Once I started doing more marathons and half marathons and then moved into triathlons, I felt like I was a different athlete than the one I was in high school. Instead of viewing races as a threat - a way to see how I could fail - I began viewing them as a way in which I could measure my growth, both in speed as well as mental fortitude. As a result, racing has become a fun game rather than something I dread. It's a change that I actually haven't given much thought or analysis to, but I think the catalyst was when I started doing races for only myself and my own enjoyment and didn't let outside pressures - real or imagined - interfere. I also think that racing often - whether it is triathlons, road races, trail races, cyclocross - has gotten me used to competing, to the point where it is no longer a novelty or something to be feared. I like familiarity and racing often gives me insight into what to expect.
I am still a worrier, do not get me wrong. During the bike portion I'm always thinking please don't get a flat tire please don't get a flat tire please don't get a flat tire and during the run I'm always worried I'm going to have some sort of nutrition fail. I'm not always the calmest person out there if/when things go wrong. But at least it usually isn't the competition/race itself that is getting me riled up. 70.3 Worlds was probably an exception - I felt like I didn't belong there and, along with my various nutrition fails on the course and my inability to thrive in 100+ degree weather, I let my mental jitters get the best of me. I had been more nervous for that race than I usually am for races and I simply didn't harness those nerves for good and let them get the best of me instead. It seems like one of my triggers for cracking under pressure is feeling like I am not good enough to belong. Cockiness can be a pretty negative trait but I've found I need to be a mentally cocky jerkface (in my mind, NOT out loud to others) if I'm going to toss aside my worrier status and try on the facade of a warrior instead.