How Not to Freak Out (During a Season)

This season, World Championships are ridiculously late (end of September/beginning of October). Usually they’re in July/August, so it’s a weird thing to prepare mentally for a peak at what feels like a completely different time of year. Last season, I was fully aware that my priority was end of August/beginning of September (the Diamond League Final and IAAF Continental Cup). This year, that focus is a whole month later. The rest of the competitive season doesn’t really change, though, so I will still start traveling to meets at the end of May, just like last year. That feels early to me, honestly, but it can be difficult to be an American watching the collegiate season roll onward, the Australian/South Pacific season come to a close, and people in other throwing events just dropping bombs. It’s neat to feel the right kind of FOMO (motivation: I want to throw far, too!!!), but if you let that excitement run rampant, you’re asking a lot of your nervous system even when you’re not in any kind of training arena!

I know I’m not alone in feeling antsy when other peoples’ results start to pour in, and mine either haven’t started yet, or aren’t what I hoped they would be. I want to talk about how to stay in your own lane. How to rely on the plan that you and your coach have set in place and ease your mind so that you save energy for the rest of the season (when you’re supposed to perform). How not to lose sleep over the fact that you sometimes feel like the world is leaving you behind.

I’m a firm believer that one of the biggest lessons you can learn from sport is how to channel uncertainty, frustration, worry, doubt, fear, and any other negative emotion into positive energy and outcomes. That huge feat takes time for everybody, but I’m hoping to provide you some super simple tools here that can help you on your way.

Step one to remaining calm…

Step one to remaining calm…

I’ve written about how to recover. I’ve described some mental tools that I use either in competition or the day of competition to stay calm. But here are some ideas to either distract yourself from or channel the very specific kind of seemingly helpless frustration that comes from wanting to succeed but having to wait. A lot of people want to go lift or head to practice when they feel this feeling, but overtraining doesn’t help anyone! I will preface this entire list with this: PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN. Scrolling social media channels, desperate for one more ounce of information about whatever you’re worried about is NOT helpful. Stash that google machine across the room and calm your mind. In no particular order:

1.       Do something totally different.

I’ve said this before and I will say it for the rest of my life! Be well-rounded. If you’re still in school, pour yourself into your studies. Start a new hobby or fall back on the one you’ve always loved. Read your favorite book or find a new one. Start a book club with a friend! Confidence and enjoyment in other areas of life breed confidence and enjoyment on the runway, so master other crafts as well.

2.       Stretch.

This is something we all say we’ll work on at home and we hardly ever do. Just stretch. Mildly, not aggressively. Breathe. Feel what you feel and think about how the stretches you’re doing will help your throw. Which parts of your body feel tight in practice? Focus on those. Ease into it. You’ll actually enjoy it after 3 minutes, I promise.

3.       Hydrate or meal prep.

Grab your water bottle, not a wine bottle. Make yourself some tea. If meal prep is something that you do, do that. If meal prep isn’t your thing, but you’re going crazy enough to try it, try it! Researching recipes and trying new things, especially when you know the real and nutritious food you’re making will help your throwing, can calm your mind. The simple act of taking care of your body with hydration and nutrition will help you trust it when it finally comes time for you to perform.

4.       Core.

Your core is difficult to overtrain! Obviously it’s possible so please don’t go too crazy, but this is another area where we all say we’ll do more than we actually do. Get into a plank for a minute each side. Do 3x30s of seated Russian twists. Be a Banana for a while. Focus on how the simple work you’re doing will help your throw. Feel connection between your upper and lower body!

5.       Film review.

Your OWN, not everyone else’s who has been throwing far and making you antsy. Watch past years. Watch yesterday. See what’s different. Think about how you felt yesterday vs. what you were focused on last season. Appreciate the changes you’ve made and concentrate on how those changes are going to get you the results you want.

6.       Journal.

I used to hate training journals. I would accidentally turn them into teenage diaries of how I felt about every single thing I did that day. But now, with my Believe Training Journal, I really enjoy just recording what happened. I’m forced to very briefly record my takeaways because there’s not much space. It’s made for runners, but I like the simplicity because it’s easier to pick out patterns. Why did I have that terrible back spasm this week? Go back to last week and check it out: Makes sense. Pick positive patterns out of your journals as well, of course! But writing about what’s bothering you makes you process it, too. And then you can move forward. Try setting a timer for 10 minutes and just writing the entire time. It doesn’t matter what you write about, just keep your pen moving! I’ve really enjoyed that process in starting to write my blogs.

7.       Meditate/Visualize.

I’m terrible at this, but getting better. Turn on a white noise app or download a guided meditation one (you may use your phone for this one). Maybe after you do your film review, spend some time visualizing your absolute perfect throw in vivid detail. You can also visualize how you might compete against those people who are already competing, or someone you know has been a challenge for you in the past. Specificity in visualization is really powerful, so channel what’s bothering you into something you can overcome mentally. Again and again. Just worrying about it isn’t helpful, but planning to overcome something specific is.

8.       Take a nap.

If your brain is working overtime about your worry, it’ll be hard to go to sleep. But do things that will allow you to get that shut-eye! Turn on a fan or classical music or just focus on keeping your mind blank until suddenly you’re sleeping. Naps are my favorite.

9.       Go for a walk.

With or without headphones and music/podcasts. Preferably in nature, but just around your neighborhood is great, too. Just stroll. Walking just to walk isn’t something people really do! But it’s calming. Maybe after your walk, take a nap.

10.   Borrow a dog.

Dogs are the best. I didn’t have one for most of my career but she is so important to my recovery and general happiness now! Dog owners, though, always enjoy when other people play with their puppers. Ask a friend to borrow their dog for an afternoon. Walk it or just pet it or take it to the park. Teach it a trick. Let it make you happy!

Pick one of these things when you’re next feeling the pressure of a season of which you don’t yet feel a part! Don’t run to the track to practice when you’re getting worked up if it’s not on the schedule, take care of business in other ways to calm your mind and preserve the plan of your season. Training is planning for your body to perform at a certain time. Freaking out and rushing that process messes with the plan! But I know how hard it can be to feel stuck at home and helpless. You’re NEVER helpless. You have lots of different tools to make yourself better. And when it’s time, all your waiting will be worth it.

You can absolutely use your nervous energy within training sessions. Mimicking the way you’ll feel in a competition if someone throws far by using that worry in a positive way during training is the perfect way to a) get it out of your system and b) turn negative feelings into positive outcome. Nervous energy is energy you can put toward far throws. Just learn to channel it by using the ideas above!

Some joy from performing at the right time of year! (Beijing 2015)

Some joy from performing at the right time of year! (Beijing 2015)

Questions from Instagram:

“I check what everyone threw at a meet I’m going to is that bad?”

I wouldn’t recommend it! If it helps you to not be surprised by peoples’ far throws within a competition, that’s one thing and I get it. If it’s just a way for you to work yourself up for days before going into a meet, stop it! Worry and concentration on other people just fry your nervous system and put you at a disadvantage during the meet. You probably have some sort of idea who throws what without doing a deep dive into their athletic history, right? So you already know what you’re up against without spending a lot of energy looking it up in detail. If it’s a positive for you, that’s fine. But if all those numbers consume your thoughts when you’re trying to sleep the night before, or if it feels like you’re focusing on others more than what your technical cues are, try to find a new habit (like thinking about your own cues!).

“How do you get away from runway anxiety?”

See my “Competition Mentalityblogs for a lot of info on this!

“Pinpointing what this looks like for different people? And expressing it to young athletes.”

I don’t have a ton of experience expressing things to young athletes, unfortunately. But I can try to describe how I’ve seen such performance anxiety manifest in different people I’ve known throughout my career (and myself)!

I used to watch live results of meets I knew competitors would be at and worry the whole time. Now I know that if something amazing happens, I’ll hear about it. I’ve watched a LOT of teammates and training partners overtrain because they can’t trust the process their coach has laid out for them. They think that ten more sets of drills are better, when really maybe one more set of excellent drills are what they need. Physically, this particular anxiety is just a tightness in my chest coupled with an extreme restlessness. Like when results show up on Friday night or Saturday and maybe you were happy with how you did that weekend, but now someone else has done better and you can’t BELIEVE you have to wait another week or two to try again. Refocusing on what went well or what your actual goals are is helpful here. There are a lot of different ways such feelings can present themselves! The bottom line to helping someone through them is to communicate with them. Care about them as a whole person and an athlete.

“Comparison! How to avoid?”

Put your phone down. Comparison is the thief of joy, it’s true!!

I struggle so much with social media. I’m working on ideas for a blog about my complicated social media feelings! About a month ago, I started leaving my phone in my kitchen when I went to bed. Instead of scrolling Instagram, I read a book I’m actually interested in, pet Maddie, and talk to my husband. That simple act has made it easier to put my phone down somewhere in the house during the day and forget about it, too. It’s a bad bad day when I’m refreshing Insta. I hope we all know by now that most of what we see on social media is the optimum of someone else’s life, not the whole picture. I saw a #javelin post the other day that was a guy throwing, in a questionable position, and the caption was, “Roast Me.” I loved it so so much for its realness!! Follow things that make you happy. And if there’s someone out there that you are following that doesn’t boost your training or feelings, unfollow or mute! Instragram (and any social media) can be such a great tool for learning and cooperation, if you’re careful to monitor what you are getting out of it. I hope that any training tips or rehab things that I post are educational rather than intimidating: If you’re not inspired and motivated by whoever is in your life, digitally or in the flesh, change that.

Comparison within competition is something I had to learn how to avoid as well. My technique is my technique, and watching other women throw doesn’t help me focus on my own technical goals for the day. That kind of thing is for practice. I used to watch how people prepared for a meet and see how far their javelins flew during warm-ups, then let however I compared to that have an impact on my feelings! Silly! So I stopped watching other women’s throws. That’s it. You can’t really close your eyes to everything, and I’m fine to watch someone coming down the runway, but as soon as the javelin leaves their hand, I don’t need to see where it’s going. It’s not helpful to me. You’re going to know within competition when someone throws far. But staying in your own process is easier when you’re not also processing all of the visual information around you that has nothing to do with you.

“Please! Also about doing that during training in the insta age.”

Since I’ve addressed social media a bit above, I’ll take “insta age” as “instant age.” Many people like instant results in 2019! A weird thing about me is that I’ve never been that person. Like I don’t open packages I’ve been waiting for for like three days. I enjoy training just as much as competition because I know what it’s for. I absolutely love delayed gratification, but I’m competitive enough that feeling left behind gives me this anxious feeling that inspired this blog! So I think I understand how instant gratification people feel.

My advice for dealing with the desire of instant gratification is to think about something that has happened in your life that you are thrilled about, and all the steps that you took to get there. Really reflect on how much you love or appreciate that thing (or maybe person? Child?), and everything that went into bringing it into your life. All the little things that had to happen along the way to make it possible. Realize that some of the best things in your life have been the product of slow builds, and it makes training and patience for competition and results an exercise in gratitude for that build.

 “What about young athletes with lows after a very successful year?”

Talk to them about expectation. Throws are about jumps in performance and then working toward a plateau at that level, then jumping in performance again. Waiting for the jump can be terribly hard! A young athlete could also fall into the trap of thinking that just because they succeeded once, they have that performance in their back pocket. Throws are more punishing than that! You have to reinforce the work you’ve already done and then learn even more to improve. I am not a coach, but I would try to have the conversation with kids that expectations have to match reality just a little bit as far as results go: There’s something to be said for competition giving people an extra boost in performance, but understanding positions and feeling certain things in practice need to come before far throws can. Ask your athlete what’s different with them? What were they doing well when they threw far, and what are they doing now? Is there something small they can change to give them more confidence? Perhaps it’s not a javelin issue at all.

“Should you hold back ‘fire’?”

I don’t quite understand but I’m going to say no. Always try your best! You can just do that in a lot of different ways.

“Can I ask, how to sleep the night of a competition? And how to not be too nervous in a comp.”

For advice on how to not be too nervous in a competition, read my Competition Mentality blogs!

As far as sleeping the night before a competition, I struggle with that a bit, too. Try to make things as normal as possible (same bedtime routine no matter where you are, be on the same page with your roommate about the TV being on or not, etc.). If you have trouble falling asleep because you’re thinking about throwing, maybe download a guided meditation app that makes you think about something else before sleeping. Once you practice this with a recording enough, you’ll maybe be able to just clear your mind on your own and get good rest. There are various SleepyTime teas commercially available, but I find that non-caffeinated tea in general makes me feel like curling up under the covers! If you do any kind of supplementation to sleep, I would recommend that you try whatever system you’re thinking about the night before a training session first to see how your body responds. I do not take supplements and I do not recommend them in general, but they work for a lot of people.

“This year so far, I opened the best I have, the second meet I competed had the best series of my life and had a PR, my 3rd meet had one of the worst meets after putting more pressure on myself knowing I can do better. How do you compete/what mentality should you have when raising the expectations and bar for yourself without putting too much pressure on yourself?”

I would say, moving forward, pretend your next competition is another season opener! Do your best to start strong for sure, and then with each successive throw, be in the moment and compete with your last throw. For your next meet, your PR or when it happened don’t matter. Reset, and challenge yourself to take the competition throw by throw, casting aside any overarching expectations you might have. To make that first throw strong, think about what cues have really worked for you recently, and just pick your favorite one.

When we try to push after having great results early, it’s SO easy to just trust the positions we think we have nailed down and “relax and let it happen.” While that is absolutely the zen moment you want, it’s not quite that when it actually happens. The zen of an amazing flow day lies in knowing absolutely that certain technical positions are yours, and that you’ll hit them exactly when you need to. It’s like you’re moving in slow motion. Your mind isn’t blank, it’s laser focused on connection and how to keep connection happening. Connection is achieved through great technique. So keep drilling, keep nailing positions that you know worked for you in your first two meets and have been working all year in training (because clearly that’s the case and how you got to a PR!), and then when you get into the ring just start from there. Knowing you can do better (belief) is important, and knowing how you will do better is a lot more important. You already know that because you’ve already done it. It’s a really subtle shift in focus that can feel really difficult, but your body knows how much you want success and further throws without that thought being at the forefront of your mind. The whole “it’s about the journey, not the destination” thing rings true for technique and mindset as well.

This is also a growing pains question I think! It’s absolutely normal to have disappointing performances after a PR, so try not to be too hard on yourself. It’s fantastic to start a season on such a high note, and there is no reason to be totally down on yourself about one bad performance (or even two!). As Barbora said to me last summer, “You must have one.” I had thrown 55m. Then I threw 64.75m a few days later. You’re going to be great! *flexed arm emoji*