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Sports and Recovery: Beating Race Day Anxiety


January 2014

I read a post the other day written by a swimmer who made her life hell by worrying about every aspect of her career – in fact she even went so far as to say her anxiety held her back.  Now, I want to make this very clear:  Some cases of anxiety require professional attention.  As I am not a professional, other than having beaten anxiety with the help of several knowledgeable people, the technique in this post will work against extreme cases but is should be used only under the help and care of a pro.

Race Day and/or performance anxiety is bad enough but throw down-time anxiety into the mix and an athlete can make life rough.

Now, I don’t know much about competition because reality being what it is, I’m not into fitness for the competition, I’m in it for the fun and food. Recovery, however, has forced me into dealing with heavy day-to-day anxiety.  Think nervous wreck and panic attacks.  I know a little bit about anxiety.

I was taught early on in sobriety that the key to managing anxiety is a daily inventory.  In addition, we have a saying that goes, I’m only as sick as my secrets.  Now for a recovering person some of the secrets are pretty gnarly and can take quite a bit of unraveling so it’s good to have someone to trust with my secrets.  A shared secret loses its power over us.  With sports and fitness, while performance usually isn’t life-threatening, one can certainly work oneself into a lather – the important point to remember here is that anxiety is rooted in fear.  At the end of my drinking career I had spiraled down to the fear of losing my parent’s support, the fear of being homeless, the fear of dying (I didn’t treat my liver too well), and the fear of recovering (what if my life sucked and was boring?).  Athletic performance fear, though not quite life threatening, can be just as bad though – especially for the professional athlete:  The fear of losing what one has, losing the lifestyle, losing favor with fans…  Now, I don’t mean to belittle race day anxiety.  In fact, by its very nature, because it isn’t life-threatening, these fears can be even more subtle and difficult to nail down and thereby, fix.

Rather than drag this one out I’m going to get right to it because the solution to conquering anxiety, even when it’s life and death, is hard but simple. 

First, especially in my case as a drunk, I had to straighten up.  How this translates to sports performance is that if I’m phoning it in, if I’m not giving my best on my scheduled workouts, then I need to straighten that up.  If, on the other hand, I am giving it my best then I have to look elsewhere for the root of my fears – am I being too critical, etc.

Once I get the root fear figured out I can work on a daily inventory.  This inventory is, again, difficult but very simple:  At any given moment, am I doing the next right thing to further my goals, to stay sane or to conquer my fear?  If the answer is no, then I have work to do and I get to it.  If the answer is yes, then the answer is to let that thinking go (higher power, God, universe…).  Then I change the tape that is playing through my head:  “I am doing everything I can do at this moment, this fear is not real, it is in my head and it will be beaten, etc..  Do this long enough and you will triumph.

At the end of the day I take another inventory, this one for the day.  Have I cut any corners, have I lied, cheated or stolen.  Where did I fall short and where did I excel…  This is the heart and soul of living a clean and happy life and I’m here to tell you;  If this can keep a newly recovering drunk sane, it’ll work on performance anxiety.  This leads us to the final question in the inventory for the evening:  Is there anything else that I can do right now to rectify my shortcomings?  If the answer is yes, I get to it.  If the answer is no, I sleep well and take action first thing in the morning.

The reason that I say the inventory is difficult is that it’s tough to get used to keeping the inventory at the forefront rather than reverting back to the old way of doing things and thinking.  It takes a lot of practice but this is the key to beating anxiety:  Taking account and action.

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