Making Use of Pre-Race Jitters
August 14, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

If you’re like most of us, you approach the giving of a presentation with fear. Internal chatter keeps you from thinking clearly. You’re worried about what might happen. Your heart rate is elevated. You probably feel drained and exhausted before you even start, and you have a stomach full of butterflies, perhaps even nausea. 

A fascinating article by Patrick J. Cohn and Andre Bekker on the Training Peaks website, however, describes these same exact symptoms as pre-race anxiety. Training Peaks is an interactive website for planning and tracking athletic training, particularly endurance sports, such as running, cycling, and triathlon. It also publishes articles of interest to the kind of athletes who might use the site, and I was alerted to this one by a triathlete friend whom I have blogged about here from time to time.

My friend told me that pre-race anxiety is a significant issue for endurance athletes. If you are an Ironman competitor, for example, you have an audience made up of the thousands of other athletes who are competing against you. You will be with these people all day long (elite athletes do an Ironman in 8-9 hours; others in 12-13 hours). In the course of a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run there will almost never be a moment in which someone isn’t in a position to watch and judge your performance. Your competitors are by and large a friendly audience, but that’s just all the more reason you don’t want to look bad in front of them.

In reality, once the race gets underway, the fear of looking bad disappears. It is only before the race starts that this fear has any power over you. The Training Peaks article, however, says there is a profound difference between pre-race jitters and pre-race anxiety. The latter, it suggests, is debilitating. The former is actually useful in driving performance. Jitters make you excited to get started, for example. They make you alert and physically prepared. They get your heart rate up nearer performance levels. They give you the energy you need to keep performing. They can help you think clearly about what you want to accomplish.

How do you convert anxiety to jitters? The article offers five tips: 

  1. Warm up properly.
  2. Re-check your goals and your reason for being there.
  3. Visualize yourself executing according to plan.
  4. Focus on something other than your fears.
  5. Don’t worry about avoiding failure; focus on achieving success. 

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this. What’s good advice for athletes turns out to be good advice for presenters: 

  1. Warm up your voice and make sure it’s ready.
  2. Remember your goal for the presentation and why you’re giving it.
  3. Imagine the presentation unfolding according to plan.
  4. Focus on your surroundings rather than your fears.
  5. Don’t worry about avoiding failure; focus on achieving success.

Here’s a tip that didn’t appear in the article, but that we have found useful in all presentations. Once the presentation begins, control your gaze to control sensory input: focus your gaze on one audience member while you complete a thought, then focus on another for the next thought. 

And just keep reminding yourself: this is what you trained for. Execute the plan, and you’ve got this. Fortunately, most presentations don’t take as long as you would need for 140.6 miles of swimming, biking, and running. But, with any luck, you’ll feel just as satisfied when you’re finished.