Want to hear a confession? Despite twenty plus years of experience competing, I still get nervous before a big event. Shocking right? You would think that four years of Division I College Track, competitive gymnastics and an appearance at the CrossFit Games in the team competition would have obliterated my pre-game jitters. The truth is that butterflies are a perfectly natural biological response to competition for all athletes from Little League to the big leagues. One of the things that sets champions apart from everyone else is their ability to recognize and control these biological responses.
Below are my five top tips to help you break through game day mental obstacles and thrive when everything is on the line. These tips are based on science presented in my recent book, Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain and my years of participating in high level competitions. I'm hoping that you'll be able to put these to use and benefit from lessons that I had to learn the hard way during endless hours in the lab and on the field.
1. Load Up On Sleep The Week Of The Competition
Recovery is just as important as training especially for serious athletes with a heavy workout schedule. Most athletes rely on nutrition, deep tissue work, ice baths (or cryotherapy like my teammates and me), and supplements to reset the engine. Then they forget the most important and least expensive component of recovery - sleep. Don't believe me? You're not alone. I've been a sleep researcher for the past decade and I can't tell you how many times athletes, otherwise healthy people and even those well versed in neuroscience say they can get by on less.
Sleep is important not just for alertness but so your body can release important hormones that it normally wouldn't while awake. These hormones, with the big one being growth hormone, promote tissue repair and muscle growth. With shortened sleep, growth hormone secretion is blunted, plain and simple. The need for sleep before a competition is even more important. Not only does your body need to prepare itself for battle and load up on energy reserves that can easily be gained from sleep, but most athletes don't sleep the night before a competition. Even Rich Froning, the four-time fittest man on Earth, has terrible sleep during the Reebok Crossfit Games. However, as the science shows, loading up on sleep right before a big bout of pre-competition "sleep debt" can protect the brain and body from suffering.
2. Embrace Pre-Competition Butterflies
Like I said earlier, I still get nervous before a big event even after all these years of competing at a very high level. Competition is stressful and we biologically need to prepare ourselves for this stress. The stress response starts in the brain and eventually involves the recruitment of the adrenals to release cortisol and adrenaline. This is the body's way of mobilizing energy and providing the muscles with the sugar, fats, and protein needed to perform at our best. It's the body's way of getting extra oxygen to our lungs and blood to our limbs before it faces an oxygen debt in the midst of competition.
Embrace it. Don't freak out. It's primal.
3. Do Not Change Your Routine
Changing my routine helped lead to the biggest choke in my high school athletic career. I was projected to win the state championship in pole vault my senior year of outdoor track (Go me!). Unfortunately I decided that it would be a good idea to switch to another pole for the final jump of the competition. Go big or go home right? Wrong. Changing up your routine in a sport that requires you to fling your body over a bar twelve plus feet in the air is a terrible idea. I still ended up placing in the State Championships, but I didn't win and lost my indoor title. I guess the old saying is true - all glory is fleeting.
The bottom line is don't change your normal warm up or competition routine. Your body latches on to the types and intensities of exercises and stretches used to warm up, get pumped up, and cool down in training so why should competition be treated any differently? It is easy to trick yourself mentally, but you can't trick your body.
4. Do Not Overthink
High School wasn't the last time I choked in a big way. My Junior year of College I was projected to do very well at the Ivy League outdoor track and field championships (Go me again!). The event was held in one of the most historically significant stadiums for the sport of track and field: Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania, home of the infamous Penn Relays. I had an excellent warm up and soared well above the starting height of 11 feet. However, I decided to over-analyze my starting position and hand placement on the vaulting pole moments before going. Instead of just mindlessly sticking to my normal rituals, I decided to critique them. Well, I "no heighted"--didn't make the opening height. Instead of relaxing and letting my body perform a well ingrained movement, I started thinking about it and everything fell apart.
I talk a lot about overthinking in Meathead. Overthinking is very common with sports and skills that are complex and require a great deal of motor control and coordination: weightlifting, putting, pole vaulting, and throwing a curveball to name a few. These aren't natural movements and yet motor pathways between the muscles and spinal cord can "learn" them so that you don't need to consciously think about them while you are performing. Once these movements become second nature, thinking about them can actually hurt your performance. The brain areas coined with making humans smart can provide negative interference and change up these motor pathways in a way that will hurt your performance.
5. Enjoy The Moment And Find That Familiar Face In The Crowd
One of the greatest thrills of athletic competition is walking out to your starting position and hearing the roar of the crowd. Sure, some people are there to support you, while others are hoping that you choke. Find that person in the crowd--family or stranger--who is or looks to be your supporter and focus your attention on them. When the workout becomes a struggle, let them motivate you to keep moving faster and harder. When you become frustrated, let them calm you. This is the same advice speech coaches give to public speakers: find that one person in the audience who seems likeable and speak to them. This sense of familiarity will help you stay in your comfort zone, at least mentally.
I hope these tips help you perform like a champion in your next competition. Learn more about what makes the athletic brain unique and quite honestly, superior to the "dumb jock haters" in my popular science book Meathhead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain available for sale online (Amazon and Barnes and Noble).
About Allison Brager:
Professional: Academic Researcher w/ a focus on neurobiology @ Morehouse School of Medicine and professor at Morehouse College
PHD Info: Kent State w focus on neurobiology (PHD from Department of Biological Sciences)
CrossFit Games Experience: 2014 Regionals Athlete, 2013 CrossFit Games - Team, 2012 Regionals Athlete
Collegiate Athletic Background: Brown University Track & Field, 4 year varsity letterman, specialist in pole vault and hurdles
Facebook: Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
Allison's Blog: www.dormivigilia.com
Instagram and Twitter: @beastlyvaulter
We would like to thank Allison for writing this post. She's a phenomenal athlete, extremely smart and a pleasure to work with. If you would like to know more about her, check out our recent interview with her here.
We hope you have big success putting Allison's tips into practice. Let us know if you have a great performance - we might just choose you as our Athlete Of The Week!