Sean Lyden was FHSAA Class 1-A state champion in cross country (1990) and the 1600m and 3200m in track (1991) for Westminster Academy in Ft. Lauderdale and ran for Samford University in Birmingham, AL. His daughter, Adair Lyden, graduated from Lake Nona HS (2016) and is the Florida MileSplit Editor.
There are few experiences like competing at the state cross country meet. You get to perform on a big stage where the crowds are cheering from start to finish of your race. A total adrenaline rush.
But if you're among the favorites to win a title this weekend, you might be feeling a sense of burden right now, a heavy weight of pressure on you, where you feel like, I have to win. I can't let my school ... my friends ... my family ... myself down.
If that's sounds like you, you're not alone. That's a totally natural feeling, and a lot of us in your shoes have experienced that same anxiety.
Yet, if you allow that pressure to keep building, it can cause your nerves to get the best of you and prevent you from racing at your full potential.
So, how can you diffuse the pressure so you can perform your best at states?
Here are three tips:
1. Let go and lean in.
"Let go" of the expectation that you must win. Understand that no matter how good you are, you can't control the outcome. Anything can happen. Someone else can have a breakout day, and your best simply wasn't good enough to win for that race. Remember: You're not ultimately defined by whether you win or lose ... but you are defined by your effort.
And that's where "lean in" comes in. While you can't control the end result, you can control your effort. So, when you toe the line, commit that no matter what -- no matter how the race unfolds, no matter what place you're in at any given moment of the race -- that you'll lay it all out on the course.
When you "let go and lean in," this frees you from the pressure to win, so that you're in a state of mind that puts you in the best position to win. And if the race doesn't go your way, at least you have the satisfaction of having no regrets.
2. Visualize success.
So often when we put excessive pressure on ourselves, we naturally begin to visualize the worst-case scenarios, which makes us feel anxious and depletes our energy. The anecdote: visualize success instead.
In the days leading up to my senior year state meet, I would visualize my race, putting myself in a wide range of situations. I'd start off picturing my ideal race but then try to think up any possible scenarios that could make me anxious.
Here are some examples of how my thoughts would play out, as I visualized myself racing in that moment:
Competitor goes out hot. How will I respond? If I'm on target pace through the 1k, then chill. I'll get him.
Competitor stays on my shoulder. How will I respond? Throw in mini surges to test his will to stay with me. The moment I sense any weakness on his part, drop the hammer and break his will to fight.
Competitor challenges me, attempting to pass me. How will I respond? Depends on who it is and where we are in the race. If we're still in the first half of the race, let him do his thing. I'll get him. If it's the second half of the race, surge with him until he pulls back. Often, this will break him.
I've created separation. How will I hold them off? Throw surges. Take away any hope.
When you can visualize yourself performing at your best in even the most stressful situations, you'll find that your more calm, ready, and even excited to take on any challenge as you prepare to toe the line at race time.
A great book that helped me learn advanced relaxation and visualization techniques is one my dad bought me prior to my senior season -- The Total Runner: A Complete Mind-Body Guide to Optimal Performance by Jerry Lynch. It was written in the late 1980's, but the techniques are still relevant, and I continue to use them to help me perform at my best in business and many other areas of my life.
3. Do you.
Ever notice how so many state meet races go tactical, where the field goes out cautiously and the winner is decided by whoever has the most killer kick? It's often because many of those athletes are racing "not to lose" versus going on the attack to win. And they get beat because they race outside of their strength zone, which creates greater anxiety for them as they realize they're no longer in control.
So, if you're confident that you have the best kick in the field, then a tactical race might be perfect for you. But if that's not you, then "do you." Run to your strengths.
I realized early on in my running career that I had an average kick, but I could push a hard pace when I needed to. So, if I were to give myself the best odds of winning on a state level, I couldn't wait till the last 300m to 400m to kick. I needed to "drop the hammer" with at least two laps to go to break away and pray that I would still have enough in the tank to hold off my opponents.
When you run in your strength zone, you feel a greater sense of control over your race, alleviating the anxiety that could hurt your performance and keep you from achieving your goal.
The Bottom Line
Keep everything in perspective. You've already achieved great things by qualifying for the state meet. And while there's not much more you can do for physical training to get ready for this weekend, you can prepare your mind to help you diffuse the pressure -- and run the race of your life!
Good luck at states!