Have you ever had that almost sick feeling in the stomach, just before the start of a race? Or, how about just before going on stage to give a speech? In some cultures we call those ‘the butterflies’.

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

I recall having those butterflies before my races on our high school swim team. In college, when starting to do triathlons, I would be so excited for the race I could hardly sleep the night before, which sapped some of my strength for the start.

Before I had much experience in teaching and public speaking I was as nervous and uncomfortable before getting behind the podium as any one would be. (And don’t you hate that feeling like you have to go pee again, 1 minute before its your time to get up, though you just went 5 minutes ago!!)

Some people regard these nervous feelings as a sign that something is wrong, or something that shouldn’t be there, or something to get rid of as soon as possible. These feelings seem to be a threat to performance. We look at other people around the start of a race and most of them look so calm and cool, especially the stronger competitors. But certainly, most of them are feeling those same nervous feelings inside. If they are taking the race seriously, they should be. 

Those butterflies are not the sign of something wrong. They are actually the sign that your body is prepared for action. Even in a recreational activity like racing, the body shifts into a general ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, when it anticipates the need for action that has consequence attached to failure, whether those be physical, psychological or social. The term ‘fight-or-flight’ has a negative connotation, but that mobilized state is not there only for dealing with threatening situations, but positive ones also – like racing in these recreational activities. 

When the body is mobilized for action it shuts down system (like digestion) and firms up muscles (like the abdomen) and narrows attention (like going over the race course in your imagination) and builds up energy inside the body, ready to release it all into action. 

The relief of those butterflies is suppose to come from taking action, and particularly in taking action that matters in the race situation you face. Diverting that nervous energy in another direction is taking it away from the purpose it was meant for.

Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

You don’t want to remove that energy or dissipate it into activities that don’t matter to the event ahead. You don’t actually want to shut that feeling down or cover it up with some kind of medication. Rather, you embrace these nervous sensations and re-interpret them in the context of what you are about to do. You know they are there to help you succeed, not hinder you. 

To develop a better relationship with those butterflies you need to prepare thoroughly for your racing event. Then you need to trust the training you’ve done. You’ve persistently trained your neuro-muscular system to fall into certain patterns of movement at certain intensities appropriate to this event. You’ve rehearsed the game plan for this event, knowing when to shift focus, when to shift intensity, when to change direction. When that kind of programming is in place, that pent up energy will flow into those programs upon release. That release will shift the sensations from nervousness to purposefulness to confidence to satisfaction. 

Here is what you can work on:

Do the work. Train at the intensities and for the duration and in the conditions you will race at. Use practice to train the patterns you will use in the race. 

Study the race, then make a plan for it, and then imagine going through that race over and over and over. This mental race rehearsal can be just as important as the physical training you do.

Establish routines you will follow for the day before, the night before and the hours before the race. Set patterns for how you will eat, how you will hydrate, how you will sleep, how you will meditate, how you will review and pack your gear, how you will warm up for the race, how you will approach the starting line.

With more racing experience, you can channel some of that premature butterflies into those routines. This will help protect your sleep and your digestion and your muscle relaxation. You can take action with something that is actually productive. Then you will get better at awakening those butterflies and letting them loose just before start of your event, so they don’t wear you out by coming awake too early. 

You can work on your interpretation of those nervous sensations, knowing that the energy is being stored up in your body is there to help you, not hinder you. 

You can realize that most everyone else are feeling some butterflies too. Once you are able to embrace those feelings rather than be alarmed by them, you can appear more cool before your race like the others seem to be. 


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