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.
Almost 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.
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!
But 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.
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.
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.