Olympic Trials Mentality

from Aspirations of a BA Steeplechaser

This year’s Olympic Trials is the race I’ve been training for my entire professional running career.  During all the downs of my running career over the past few years, I’ve made myself feel better by remembering the ultimate goal is to be ready for the Olympic Trials, 2016.  And now it is almost here.  I can’t come out of this race telling myself, “it’s okay, you’ve got a bigger picture to think of.”  This is the big picture.

I have a hard time comprehending all that is on the line.  And, quite frankly, I don’t want to dwell on it.  I will say that there are large differences between the have and have nots in track, and the difference between getting 3rd place instead of 4th place would have an incredible effect on my career.  How can I stay calm and collected when I know what is at stake?

I’ve thought about how other people approach high-pressure races.  The few accounts I’ve read of very successful athletes seem to paint their mentality all in a similar light – their careers were so fruitful because they were so determined on winning.  They trained, eat, slept winning.  Failure was not an option.

While this makes sense to me, and I know there are benefits of that drive to win, I can’t, and don’t want, to have that kind of thinking.  In my first couple years as an undergraduate, I made myself sick with stress about my athletic performance.  It seemed like so much was on the line.  Certain things were – getting to travel to meets, scholarship money, media attention, admiration, not getting yelled at by the soccer coach.  But some things I thought were on the line, were in fact not – my worth as a person, my identity, my relationships.  I was improving and performing well, but it wasn’t until I was able to separate my running success from my personal value, that I was really able to break out.  And this separation came about when I no longer felt I had to perform at the very best of my ability every time I stepped on the line.  I grew to realize it was enough to try to perform as well as I could on that day (and that doesn’t even mean going 100% all the time, as I talked about in my last post).  I learned this lesson  again after recovering from the depression and athletic burnout that hit me my last two years of college.  After I was freed from my own demons of pressure to perform, I not only excelled again, but I had so much fun doing it.

So, over the past year or so, I’ve been using meditating and yoga to practice relaxing and coming into the present moment.  I’ve also used positive imagery to see myself doing well in races.  I’ve used positive self-talk ease my nerves, “You are in-shape and ready to run fast.  You are tough enough, talented enough, and have put in the work to run well.”  But I’ve also had to tell myself, “it’s okay if you don’t win.  It’s okay if you don’t hit your goals.”  Letting myself off the hook on an intellectual level lets me be more calm, which in turn lets me run with more freedom, both in my muscles and my mind.  I don’t think this has hindered my performance; I am an incredibly competitive person, and my will to win and to challenge myself and others is there as long as I’m not struggling against depression, burnout, or too much self-imposed pressure.

Another incredibly special, but also difficult aspect of the race, is how many people are coming to support me. My brother is biking to Eugene from Denver.  My best friend is bringing her 6-month-old baby. My neighbors and family friends are coming for the entire week, even though they have rarely watched track before.  My boyfriend and parents are taking a week off of work.  They are making big sacrifices to come support me.  But I know they are there to support me as a person, and while they will be ecstatic to celebrate with me after a great race, they will also be glad to be there to hug me if the race doesn’t go as well as I hope it will.

I am already feeling anxious about the Trials; like I said, there is so much on the line, and I have so many wonderful people coming to Eugene to support me.  Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, I am trying to play the race down for the sake of my sanity and my performance.  I am reminding myself I am so much more than my performance – I am the total badass who came back from surgery, trained with my boyfriend and long-distance coaches, and got into the best shape of my life.  All the people coming to cheer me on will love me whether I finish last or first.  My decision to run has never been about the financial rewards or recognition, or I would have quit long ago.  And, although this is a big one, there are many more races in my bigger picture.

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