Are you Sabotaging your Racing Success?

Why would anyone deliberately do that you may ask? 

Don’t we all want to improve and get the most out of ourselves? Aren’t we all aiming to be better than we were yesterday? Heck, we train every day (often twice a day), so why would we sabotage that? The problem with self-sabotage is athletes often don’t even know they are doing it. It can creep into our everyday lives, into our training and then that flows on into race day – before we know it we are sabotaging our own racing potential and success.

So what can self-sabotage look like for athletes? 

There are some more obvious ways self-sabotage manifests into our lives such as not eating as well as you know you could – even though you know eating better would improve your recovery and/or performance. Or training when injured for fear of losing fitness – even though you know a few days rest is what your body needs. These are classic signs of self-sabotage that can easily be addressed.

On top of these, there are a lot of hidden ways that you can be self-sabotaging without even realising it. Can you relate to any of the following?

  • You tell yourself that you aren’t a ‘swimmer’, ‘rider’, ‘runner’
  • You worry too much about what others think of your performance
  • Your self-worth is determined by your results and the praise you receive
  • You tell yourself you aren’t
    ‘good’ enough
  • You doubt your ability and don’t believe in yourself
  • You say to others how you go doesn’t matter to you to avoid disappointment
  • You feel unrelenting pressure and expectations to achieve
  • You often say ‘I’m ONLY doing a sprint’, or I’m ‘JUST doing the half’

Self-sabotage is like an internal fight that is played out into your training and performances. You want to race well, yet on the start line all your fears come bubbling to the surface and you tell yourself you aren’t ready. You would like to push hard, yet you tell yourself you aren’t good enough. You line up on the start line knowing you have done the training, yet you start doubting your ability and hold back. You put high expectations on yourself, but those expectations bring about anxiety and fear. The internal struggle can be an ongoing battle, and that battle can be hindering your performance and sabotaging your
racing success.

How do we stop this subconscious self-sabotage?

The attitude, beliefs and the mindset that you take with you into training, and ultimately your racing will shape your performance and your success as an athlete. If you are able to shift your mindset, change your attitude and alter your beliefs, then you will minimise the effects of self-sabotage and reach your performance potential.

The first step is to understand and recognise the signs of how you might be self-sabotaging through areas such as self-doubt, anxiety, setting high expectations, the pressures of perfectionism, worrying about what others think and many other mental self-sabotage roadblocks you could be hitting. If we can become aware of these signs and understand when and where they pop up, we can learn to shift them so they don’t negatively impact our racing.

I have outlined my top five areas to help get you started on improving your mental resolve, shifting your mindset and changing your attitude to minimise the effects of self-sabotage on your performance.

Reframe your thinking

Our actions are inspired and driven by our thoughts. If we can work on changing the way we think, we can begin to change the actions we take. “Where the mind goes the body will follow”. A practice I’ve used with my athletes is applying the use of positive affirmations or motivational quotes, along with trying to change the way we word our thoughts. Without realising it, we are often using negative affirmations in our everyday lives, and these negative affirmations can then be displayed in negative habits or traits. Both negative and positive affirmations impact the neurological functioning of the brain, so if you repeatedly think that you are not going to succeed, or you are not good enough, this is a negative affirmation, and your body will subconsciously believe what you repeatedly tell it. But if you work on filling your thoughts with positive affirmations like, “I’m going to nail this session,” – then you are more likely going to. The more positive the affirmation that you include in your thought patterns, the better!

Try this – 

Instead of thinking: “I can’t”, try: “I’m going to give it my best shot”. Or instead of “I’m never going to be good at swimming”, try: “I’m making progress every day”.

If we can reduce the effects of our limiting beliefs by changing the way we speak to ourselves and work on our mental resolve, then we can diminish the effects of self-sabotage and start to have a positive impact on our performance.

Worrying about what others think

For a lot of athletes, a big stressor pre-race is worrying about what others will think of their performance. On one hand, this can be a positive as it can push you harder when a race starts to become tough. It also feels good when you have a great race – who doesn’t like a little pat on the back every now and then? But if you are an athlete who relies on the need to receive praise, feel accepted or liked by others through your performances, then what happens if (when) races don’t go to plan? The sheer thought of a race not going to plan and worrying about what others will think can manifest into race day anxiety. This form of race day anxiety leads to self-doubt and has negative effects on your racing – the opposite of what you had to begin with. Instead of craving the approval of others, work on understanding why you race; find your internal driver – don’t rely on external motivators from others. This will help reduce the need for approval and improve your race day performance by racing for YOU not for others.

Fear of failure

Goals are big drivers. They are what help you get out of bed in the morning and keep you going when the training gets tough. But how do you feel if you don’t quite reach your goal? Do you consider yourself a failure for not achieving? Do you punish yourself in some way? Or do you give up totally? We all need goals and we all want to reach them, but don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t. Worrying too much about results or the outcomes of your races can create unnecessary pre-race anxiety in the form of fear of failure. It is this fear that can lead to athletes underperforming on race day compared to how they train on a daily basis. We probably all know or have trained with athletes who train the house down but on race day things just don’t come together for them.

These athletes are often extremely critical of themselves and could be fearing failure on race day. They’ve put in the hard work in training, everyone is telling them they are going to have a great race, so they fear what may happen if they don’t. This fear can come from a number of areas, including worrying about what others think (see above) and worrying that the hard work they have put into training won’t pay off on race day (the payoff syndrome). If you feel like this is you, then it is important to determine what the underlying fear for you is, so you can learn to overcome it and reduce this form of self-sabotage.

Striving for perfection

Striving for perfection for some can be an advantage; these ‘A’ type athletes have incredibly high expectations of themselves and their performance. However, at the same time, it can actually hinder an athlete’s performance. Because here’s the thing, nothing or no one is truly ever perfect, as much as someone may try. I don’t say that to stop you from striving for and chasing your goals, or to be comfortable with settling for ‘middle of the pack’, but at the same time, you don’t need to drive yourself into the ground trying to achieve perfection – because it’s never going to happen.

Why not? You ask. Because if you are one of those athletes who is a true perfectionist, you will never be truly satisfied – no matter how much you excel, or what race results you achieve – you will always be searching. You will also find you forget to take the time to recognise your performance results, when you do achieve them and actually acknowledge the hard work you have put in because you will always find the negatives, or find the things that didn’t quite go to plan.

You may also find if your race isn’t going to your ‘perfect plan’ then this can demotivate you or you can become frustrated with a situation or outcome, losing sight of the process and focusing solely on the end goal – and that’s when things can start to unravel in a race.

Chase your goals vigorously but hold onto them lightly. Aim to improve every day but remember that it’s ok if every race isn’t ‘perfect’. The imperfect races that are the ones we learn from the most.

The pressure of expectation

Pressure can manifest itself physically through increased adrenaline, breathing and heart rate; it can present itself mentally – either positive or negative thoughts, and/or emotions (positive feelings of excitement or anticipation, or negative feelings such as anxiety and fear).

How an athlete views a particular race with regards to pressure and expectations can often determine how an athlete performs. If you are using expectations to your advantage, you view the race as a challenge. However, many athletes feel expectation as pressure and, therefore, a threat and have a negative response or experience as a consequence. As a result, the feeling of pressure manifests into a fear of failure. As soon as an athlete fears failure (the outcome of a race) they are already beginning to worry about meeting their own or others’ expectations. This can cause the athlete to focus on an outcome and can then lead to feeling the pressure to perform, which can turn into pre-race anxiety or can incite uncertainty and hesitation – all of which can stop an athlete racing to their full potential.

The good news is, for most age group athletes, pressure and expectations mostly come from within, therefore if you created it, you can also dismantle it. Instead of focusing on the end goal or result, break it down and start focusing on the process. When you start to feel pressure or expectations, break them down. Focus on what you need to do in that moment, not what you want to achieve overall. If you have been working hard on your swim technique and your hard work should net a faster time, don’t think about the time – think about the technique. If your aim was to PB on the bike, don’t think about the PB; think about what you need to do in the moment to achieve that, such as technique, power or your effort level.

Ultimately, in the end, remind yourself why you started in the sport in the first place. The sport hasn’t changed over the years, it’s still the same as when you started, it is you that has changed. So, if you are finding you can’t escape the pressure of expectation, are worrying too much about what others are thinking and fear failure, let it all go and simply go out there and find your fun again!


Sarah Grove

Sarah is the Director and Head Coach at Complete Per4mance Coaching. Born out of the desire and passion to not just coach but to educate athletes, Sarah shares her 10 years of coaching and racing experience, knowledge and education with athletes of all levels to help them achieve their optimal performance while maintaining a balanced, happy and healthy life.
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