North: The War on the Shore

The North team warms up along the lakeshore

For the first meet of the season, the North girls climbed onto a bus with their coaches and the boys’ team for the War on the Shore, an annual meet nearly an hour away in rural Ashtabula, Ohio, so close to the state border they were competing against Pennsylvanian teams.

Neither of the senior girls were racing today; top-runner Sydnie was focused on the bigger meet coming up on Saturday and Ashleigh was busy with a couldn’t-miss 4-H project. With the two most-experienced runners out, juniors Natalie and Vidhi stepped up to lead the team in a series of pre-race drills and a warm-up run. Coach James then gave them a few pre-race words of encouragement and lead them in a cheer.

But this being the first meet of the year, the first meet ever for some of the girls, the jitters were palpable.

IMG_9606Almost every runner feels nervous before a race. However, one thing we adult runners might not realize or might have forgotten if we ran on a team in the past, is that running as part of a team can come with an entirely different level of pressure to perform, especially for teens. They feel that pressure from parents, coaches, teammates, and, sometimes most intensely from themselves.

25 Years Ago

Twenty-five years ago, almost to the day, I was a new member of my high school cross country team. As I lined up for one of the first big meets of the season, I felt a crushing sense of regret over not running all summer like I was supposed to. And then, as my teammates flew out of our starting box and I began to get passed by more and more girls who I assumed were more prepared and, worse, more talented than me, I got further and further down on myself until at one point in the woods mid-race I made myself fall.

As I melodramatically lay on the edge of the course, listening to the cracks of twigs beneath competitors’ spikes, excuses congealed into some completely fantastical explanation. I eventually got up, started running again, and when I came out of the woods I had my sad, despondent, something-terrible-happened face on for all to see. I stumbled through the flag-lined finishers chute, mortified on the inside for all my many failures that got me to this point, but playing the victim on the outside to cover it all up.

At 16, I was terrible at handling this pressure.

The New Girl

Like me 25 years ago, Caitlin is 16 and new to her cross-country team. With the only other newbie, Cheyenne, out sick, it was Caitlin, the lone first-timer gearing up on Monday. Yes, she was extremely nervous. “I really don’t want to walk,” she told her teammates. Vidhi and Natalie assured her it would be ok if she did, citing a former teammate who walked through races. “Just don’t throw up on anyone,” said Mollee, laughing.

IMG_9662
Mollee (right) reassures Caitlin (left) as the team lines up.

At the starting line, the girls took a few strides out and back and then huddled up close, arms around one another for a moment of team solidarity and mutual encouragement. As they broke apart, they all wore the determined, but uncertain faces of young women with a daunting task ahead. How would they, especially Caitlin, handle the pressure? It was just a 5k; why were they so nervous?

Because They Care

“I couldn’t sleep the night before,” Coach James said about the meet on Monday. “I thought about all my races and nerves in high school. Ultimately, I knew they’d be nervous and it was killing me that I couldn’t do anything to help them.” When it comes to high school cross country, the coaches are even nervous about their athletes’ nervousness!

North High Girls XC Team Huddles up before the raceBut Coach made a great point, one that would have benefitted the sixteen-year-old-me greatly to know, “the reality is nervousness comes with the territory and it will always be that way. If they’re not nervous then they don’t care.” And this wisdom counsels the way he approaches his athletes’ jitters. Before the race he assured his team:

“There is a 100% chance that you’ll want to quit during the race. There is also a 100% chance the other teams will too. And there’s a 100% chance you’ll regret it if you do.”

Yet, despite experiencing performance anxiety himself as a high school athlete and his understanding why his girls experienced it on Monday, he still feels like he’s a work in progress when it comes to handling it. “The most challenging thing is narrowing down all the things I want to say to help them and the timing of it,” he said. “I always feel like I should have done more to help. I suppose I need them to coach me on anxiety now that I’m saying this. It’s just hard to have the words when there’s so much at stake.”

Prerace Jitters: What’s up with That?

Fear, anxiety, nervousness, jitters about racing are incredibly common for all people, but especially teens who tend to be very hard on themselves, have less experience to help keep everything in perspective, and are less likely to have yet developed the skills to cope with anxiety.

War at the Shore? A bad case of prerace jitters causes a War Within Ourselves. Nervousness, when unchecked, can cause a cascade of things to happen in an athlete’s body and mind. It can cause a runner to take shorter, shallow breaths and can cause her muscles to tense up, which prevents her from achieving her best performance. Worse, unchecked nervousness causes a runner to have more self-doubt than usual and can even cause an overwhelming impulse to quit … or an impulse to throw oneself in the dirt in the middle of the woods.

Yes, there’s a reason I shared that story. I learned something incredibly valuable from it, but only in hindsight, that I want them all to know:

It’s okay to fail.

Caitlin in the middle of her first official high school cross-country race.
Caitlin in the middle of her first official high school cross-country race.

When I was 16 I was so fixated on what I did wrong or imperfectly that I fabricated a fall so I wouldn’t have to admit these “failings” to others. But, really, did I need to do any of that? It’s true, I messed up. I didn’t run all summer, I faked a fall and I ran well below my ability in every race for an entire season. But also – here’s the kicker – I lived! And I raced again, recovered from my mistakes and got better. In fact, I raced so many more times and with far more success than I could have imagined on that fall day 25 years ago.

So, if on Monday, Caitlin, or any of the girls for that matter, walked or finished last or quit, so what? In the famous words of some chick, “Shake it off!” and try to do better next week. Because making mistakes and learning from them is the point.

The Other Side

When the horn sounded, Natalie, Vidhi, Mollee, Hannah, Lydia, and Caitlin and her newbie nerves took to the grass and sand along the lakeshore. On the field, Caitlin clearly took Mollee’s encouragement to heart. At the half mile mark she was right behind Mollee and smiled and laughed when Cinnamon yelled, “See? It’s easy! Just keep going!” Caitlin used Mollee as a guide throughout the race, finished right behind her and even had a ferocious kick!

She almost collapsed over the finishing mat, panting, “That was awful!” She stumbled over to a fence and leaned on it, worried she might get sick, then she tumbled down onto the grass to catch her breath for a few minutes before springing back to life and clearly feeling proud that today she handled it well.

Coach Justin congratulates Caitlin on a race well run.
Coach Justin congratulates Caitlin on a race well run.

Do you struggle with pre-race jitters? Has nervousness ever caused you to make a questionable decision? What do you do to keep your pre-race anxiety in check?

***

We’l be back next week with our next installment of North.

For past posts in this series, go here.

For full results from the War on the Shore meet, go here.

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life. Currently recovering from my third pregnancy, heart surgery, diastasis recti, low iron/vitamin D, sciatic nerve impingement, overtraining, mono. What can I say? I'm stubborn.

Leave a Reply

16 comments

  1. I love this coverage! I can relate to the pre-race jitters, but can say that with time and experience they are reduced. You will always have those “doubt demons” in your mind; half the battle is to make the “YOU GOT THIS, GIRL” voice stronger.

    You got this, North!!

  2. Awesome story Laura! I remember that first race myself, very well…so glad it got easier after that. Really like Coach James’ 100% talk.

  3. I am very much looking forward to following this series! High school cross country has a special place in my heart – I have great memories of being the slow new girl but befriending the mature seniors, hot hill repeats that would end with otter pops, riding the bus to far away meets with my crush… A couple years ago I assistant coached a local high school team, and I was filled with so much awe watching these kids be so vulnerable, confronting their fears & putting themselves out there, and through that process, becoming so bonded with each other! High school XC is the best!

    1. Well, here’s the thing. Nerves are only the enemy when we let them get out of hand. Some nervousness, as you said, is going to happen no matter what, because they care! And athletes need to be keyed up a little to perform. But I think, more than seeing nerves as an enemy, we should see them as just part of the deal, or even as a friend. They WILL be there, we just need to learn how to coexist with them. One thing I almost included in the post, but it was too tangential, was that something that has really helped me and even my kids is this mantra, “I can do this even if I’m scared.” You can replaced “scared” with nervous, anxious, whatever.

      1. Yes! This links back to the concept of “ideal activation level” – it’s like an upside down U – if you’re under activated, you’ll be flat, and if you’re over-activated/aroused/nervous, you can’t perform at your best. Pre-race nerves are a huge part of this!
        When I coached an elite (non-running) team, one thing we worked on with athletes was figuring out their individual right activation point, and then developing strategies to either raise or lower it for themselves pre-game.

        Here’s a quick link I found that explains it a bit: http://www.flotrack.org/article/1647-activation-level-and-peak-performance

  4. I think we all have our “faking a fall” moment(s) as a way to protect ourselves from the humiliation we feel sure we’ll experience if we “fail”, however we’ve defined it. In my case, I was so paralyzed by the fear of failure that I never even tried cross country or other sports where I knew I wouldn’t be a dominant player. I didn’t even apply to my dream college because I didn’t want to be rejected.
    To line up at all, to race in spite of the jitters, to put yourself in any situation where an anxiety attack is a possibility–that is so brave! Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. And these girls are off to an amazing start!

    1. Excellent point! It’s so much easier not to push outside of that comfort zone and most of them have no reason not to. The fact that they are makes them #legends! :)

  5. Congratulations for this wonderful project! I look forward to following the posts. My sons ran cross-country in high school (my HS didn’t have girls’ cross-country team all those years ago): one of their friends threw-up before every race for all four years even though he loved to run. What I remember most, though, other than my boys finding such camaraderie and confidence with their teammates, was at an all-school meet. The school’s best girl runner easily won the girls’ race, even setting a new high school record, BUT as she walked through the finishers’ ropes, her father loudly said to her, “You could have gone faster. What’s the matter with you? You didn’t even try very hard.” I was horrified…the pressure in public displayed by her father was disheartening. This very talented girl, who seemed fearless in high school running despite her father’s pressures, later received running scholarship to Ivy League school, developed disordered eating, and eventually left her college cross-country and track teams. Did she remember those words? Did they contribute to her later disengaging from running? Maybe not, but this type of pressure is too common, whether in running, soccer, STEM, you name it. Words can be so damaging to young people, increasing their nervousness, doubting their self-worth, and questioning their abilities. The North girls are lucky to have you all as avid supporters.

    1. Patricia, what kind words and powerful stories! If nothing else, I want these girls to know that they are capable of greatness no matter what anyone says. They have control of their own destiny and if they make mistakes along their way, there’s no shame in brushing themselves off and continuing forward in their quest.

  6. These ladies are BOSSES on the course! The anxiety was definitely high, but everyone had a ferocious kick at the end of her race, and all of them worked hard. The course was a real challenge, with a sandy beach at the start and finish, plus a double loop that included a really tough hill. They took it on with bravery and executed! I was so proud of every one of them! Race anxiety is, like you wrote, something we can all relate to, and whether you finish with a huge PR or DNF in the first half, it takes a lot of guts just to put yourself out there and try.

    But it’s also so true that it’s okay to fail, that you’ll live to race another day, which reminds me that I really need to go back and write up my Flying Pig race report – talk about an epic fail! Even though I had a lot of circumstances contribute to that failure, I’m still feeling a lot of anxiety about my upcoming marathon in September. What if I fail again? What if I never run another PR? It would be so easy to give up and say “Screw it, I’m just not cut out for marathons,” but this is a great reminder that even if I crash and burn (again!), it’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.

    1. What a great story! Go North!!

      Salty, your story about faking the fall reminds me very much of the cover stories I used to invent to “hide” my panic attacks. I never faked a fall or anything (in retrospect I can’t believe this never occurred to me) but I used to have anxiety attacks during and after races. The after part is kind of strange – you’d think it’d happen before – but anyway. I would have these attacks complete with hyperventilating and crying and I figured if I couldn’t point to anything that was specifically wrong people would just roll their eyes and be like “ugh whatever.” So I would come up with these cover stories like “oh sorry it’s just that my knee really hurts” or “I had a really bad cramp” because that seemed like a better explanation than “I suddenly started crying and hyperventilating and I don’t know why.” They usually rolled their eyes and went “ugh whatever” anyway because it was pretty clearly either untrue or totally exaggerated. In hindsight I want to give myself a hug, and I wish someone else had!

      1. “I can’t believe that never occurred to me” – what can I say? I’m a genius? haha I’m actually feeling slightly panicky for sharing that little tidbit with the world. I don’t think I’ve ever actually copped to that truth before!

        Anyway, one thing your comment reminds me about is that I think the out-of-control emotions that come with nervousness make us uncomfortable to admit and for those around us uncomfortable to confront, but by recognizing that it’s normal for wacky thoughts to go careening through your brain during these times, then it’s much easier to deal with them in a constructive way – for both the athlete and the coach. So, let it be known it’s totally normal to think “Hey, I should fall right now and I could get out of this uncomfortable situation” is pretty normal (well -ish), as is “I want to quit” or “this sucks” or “why do I do this to myself” or any other number of common negative thought loops we get into in a race context.

        1. Ha! Don’t worry, I’ve never shared my little tidbit before now either and I definitely thought twice before hitting “post comment”. It’s embarrassing tidbit day, high school running edition! Who else wants to play?

          And yes to identifying the emotions is key to managing anxiety. Ideally with enough distance to feel like you can even observe them neutrally: “ah yes, there’s that question about why I do to myself again,” or “now I’m feeling nervous because the race is about to start” or whatever. I don’t know, it works for me :)

          1. Thank heavens I didn’t run in high school so I don’t have to admit an embarrassing tidbit!
            (let’s just say, I’ve been there)