“Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it.”
I could feel the blue carpet under my toes, the warm air of Tokyo around me, the hot sun piercing through the clouds covering Odaiba bay, the eleven other girls twitching nervously beside me, the commotion of our teammates in the bandstand. This was it, no more time to think, no more chances to train in preparation, no more planning with my coach. The time has come to stand up. To deliver what I had trained over 9 years for, the perfectly executed race, pushing my physical limits to the max, learning to control my inner mental demons- can I put it all together? Can I deliver the race necessary to become Paralympic Champion. It would take everything I’ve got.
Did I have doubts? Yes. Did I think I could do it? Yes. Did I lose sleep? Yes. Did I overthink? Yes. Did I study every scenario possible? Yes. Was I concerned about my fellow racers? Yes. But all those questions are only natural. Nearly all those questions and more will surface when you are facing something that is going to challenge you or help you grow.
Below I share with you how I have trained my mind in these situations to overcome self-doubt and perform at my best when it mattered most:
Anxious and got the butterflies? Tell yourself I feel this way because I’m excited to see what I can achieve, and I’m nervous because my body is preparing itself for ‘ready to go’ mode. This is an important moment to me. Now when I stand before a race I’ve actively taught myself to think ‘I enjoy this feeling my butterflies are telling me that my body is preparing to work’. We need to create these positive spins to the task in front of us, whether that be a business meeting, a school exam, or a sporting event, we all get nervous, but we can all positively focus the feelings and the situation- it’s a fine balance between being relaxed and being ready.
Negative thoughts emerging? We naturally focus on the negative scenarios over the positive. Try practising cognitive restructuring; it takes time and constant repetition but each time a negative thought pops into your head, try and spin it into a positive. I’ve found writing down the negative thought in a notebook with the solution helps to boost my confidence in my own abilities. There is an answer for every doubt. ‘What happens if I am not where I thought I would be?’ ‘What if I cannot push harder?’. Simples solutions to these doubts include; I am strong and I am capable. I have trained daily for this moment. I need to focus on what I am good at- trust in my own process.
Feeling stressed? I now only let myself get into the ‘ready’ mode a couple of hours before the race, as there is no need to be in the zone for any time period earlier than this. We have a natural tendency to get worried weeks before an event and this only leads to sleepless nights and unnecessary stress! So I distract myself by tasks that change my train of thought; reading, baking, TV series, and then only allow myself to let in the ‘ready’ mode a few hours before the main event. Compartmentalising my thoughts, only choosing to in the moment when I need to be, not when my mind wants to be- but it takes practise!
What about the other people? Make yourself a priority in controlling your own headspace. You want to control your thoughts. You want to embrace this moment in time. And only you are in control of how you act and react. We cannot control others thoughts or actions and it simply wastes energy focusing on things that are out of our control. Spending time running random scenarios in your head that may or may not happen, leads to unfocused thoughts and increased anxiety have faith that you can be adaptable and handle any scenario given to you.
These techniques can be translated from an athletic career to all aspects of life, as demonstrated in a few examples below:
• assess your biological responses to challenge. Recognise this as useful energy that you can re-direct to achieve your goal. For example, use those nerves before a big presentation to bring energy and passion to your work.
• work on how you appraise negative thoughts and restructure these to be positive. For example, when going on a first date rather than thinking ‘What if I say something wrong?’ Have confidence, you’ve not said the wrong thing before.
• allow yourself to feel stressed only when it will become helpful to you. For example, when sitting an exam it is unhelpful to feel stressed about it until a few hours before hand. Think of all the sleepless nights and stressful days you’ll save.
• control the controllable, which is yourself! For example, don’t think about the other people going for the same job as you control yourself and your own mindset.
I often like to conceptualise self-doubt as being a gremlin on one shoulder and a fairy on the other. On the one hand self- doubt can really affect us if we don’t learn to harness it, but it can also be a powerful tool. Self-doubt can highlight our weaknesses, teach us where we need to improve and turn weak spots into strengths, ultimately helping us to grow and perform at our best.