Your mindset on race weekend matters

With the first really big race weekend of the year almost upon us I thought I would throw something up here as it is a little easier to just get something relevant posted. 

If you’ve done all your homework (training) racing successfully, no matter who you are or the level you’re racing at, really depends on what’s in your mind on race day, where your focus is and how relaxed and “happy” you are.  You want to have a clear head unencumbered by distractions and any negative thoughts, be focused on the process of paddling well rather than results and be relaxed and at ease.  These mindsets allow your body to function as you’ve trained it to, in optimal fashion. 

It can be particularly hard for someone who has trained really, really hard for a long period of time towards a certain goal to not go the starting line focused entirely on achieving that goal.  They want it so badly the result is all they can think about.  However, this is the last thing you want to be focused on on race day.

Let me tell you a story.  In 1987 I was really fast in my C1.  Faster than I had ever been in 1000m.  I had a great season at the World Cups, getting on the podium in all of them I entered – always close to winning if not standing on the top of the podium. 

The World Championships that summer were in Duisburg on one of my favorite courses.  I couldn’t be more excited about them and my goal of standing on the podium there.  When we got to Duisburg I was so focused i only did three things – trained, ate and rested.  I didn’t talk to many of the other competitors or even go to the opening ceremonies.  I didn’t want to waste any energy.  All that mattered was my race. 

I breezed through the heats and semis and felt amazing.  In the C1 1000m final I got off to an amazing start, took an early lead and built on it.  I was super focused and comfortable.  Doing what I had done over and over again in training, making every stroke perfect. 

I went through the 500m mark in first, feeling great.  I went through the 750m mark with a couple of boat length lead, feeling relaxed and super focused.  It was just after that that I made a critical mistake.  For some stupid reason I let my mind wander from process-oriented thoughts – focusing on one perfect stroke after another – to outcome-oriented thoughts.  I remember thinking to myself “I’m going to win this thing!”. 

Thinking this with 200m to go, it turns out, was deadly.  This is the point in the race where everyone makes their big push.  I had felt like I had enough left to make my push and hold off the others, but since I had just let my focus waver from process to outcome and had thought about winning I now had something to lose.  When the German, Hungarian, Russian and Bulgarian began to make their moves I sensed it.  Rather than bear down and refocus on perfect strokes I felt myself tighten up a little.  I firmly believe this was because I was no longer sufficiently focused on how to paddle well but on my result.  I was going to win, but now, suddenly, with the others making strong moves I could feel them eating into my lead.  The more they pushed the tighter I got.  One of them, I can’t remember which, drew even, then passed me.  Then another did.  With 50m to go I was still third, but now focused desperately on hanging on to a spot of the podium.  Again, focusing on a result impeded my ability to paddle as well as I could.  The more I felt pressured in the last 50m the tighter I got.  I ended up 5th and was shattered. 

It was like my world had ended.  I didn’t feel like going to the party that night (what did I have to party about?) and it took me months to get over the disappointment.

I learned from this though and never again let my focus wander in a race.  I also realized that that year I wanted it TOO badly.  I wanted it so much I put even more pressure on myself, which of course when things started to get tough made it tougher to respond and still be relaxed. 

I promised myself that next time I would not just focus on the race but make the most of the entire experience.  I’d talk to the other athletes, go to the opening ceremonies and take in the whole wonderful experience – the privilege – of representing my country.  I’d trust in my preparation and remain focused on the process of paddling well and not worry about the result but simply try to perform the best I possibly could.  Whatever the results would end up being, if I did my best what more could I do?  I’d have to be satisfied. 

In Seoul in 88 I came fourth.  I had a good race and only lost a bronze medal at the finish to the Bulgarian who rode the Russian’s wash (and was not disqualified as he should have been).  It was the best race I could have had that day.  It didn’t work out the way I wanted but it wasn’t that hard to accept.  My teammates made me an aluminum medal which they presented to me that night and, thought I would have preferred a real medal, I went home feeling at peace with my performance.  The next year at the Worlds in Bulgaria I employed the same approach and lost in a close race with the 88 Olympic Champion finishing second.  Knowing what we do now about the doping going on at those times it turns out those results are even more significant then they seemed at the time.

The moral of this story is that no mater how hard you’ve trained and how badly you want to win, there are things that you can’t control that can get in your way.  You can have the best race you’ve ever had yet someone, on that day, can be just a bit better and you can lose.  Yet how can you feel like a failure it you did the best you possibly could?  What the other competitors do is beyond your control. 

Conditions are beyond your control as well and serve only to distract you and cause your focus to waver should you worry about them.  The reality is being mentally relaxed allows you to be looser, which in turn allows you to deal with challenging conditions better.  Stressing about conditions beyond your control makes you tight and makes it more difficult for you to handle those conditions.  That’s why the “Love the Conditions” philosophy is so important.

Focusing on the outcome before a race is pretty certain to make you tight on the start and negatively affect your ability to get off the line fast.  You’ll almost always find if you are relaxed and focused only on the task at hand that you’ll get a better start.  Similarly, focusing on the outcome in the middle of a race is guaranteed to make you tight.  Once you’re tight you’re inefficient and once you let your focus wander to one thing it is easier for another to disrupt it as well.  Instead focusing only on your connection with the water and keeping your board on top of the water allows you to keep doing that, no matter what is happening around you, and of course keeping your board on top of the water is the key to paddling fast. 

Lastly, no matter what happens, remember why we’re all at a race like Carolina….because it is fun.  Enjoy it!  Experience to the fullest everything that the amazing weekend offers.  Live in the moment and make the most of it.  Don’t let your pre-race nerves or your race results ruin your weekend.  What is the worst that can happen?  You can race poorly.  But you can still have a good time.  That is still much better than racing poorly and having a terrible time.  Keeping things in perspective and never taking yourself too seriously is definitely a key to being relaxed on race weekend.  And remember, being relaxed allows you to do everything else better.

Racing is fun and race weekends are fun.  We’ve all trained hard and all want to win but let’s understand that only one person in each event can do that.  Yet we can all go home feeling like champions if we have our best race when it matters most.  So, stop thinking about the outcome and start focusing on what you know you need to do to do your best.  Have fun, enjoy yourself, take distractions in stride and I bet you’ll have a great weekend on the water AND on land.

See you in Carolina if you’re headed there.  If not, I look forward to seeing you down that road at another awesomely fun race weekend.


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