Over the course of a career, athletes experience a variety of circumstances as they approach competition. Every race is different even if one is competing on a perfectly composed and constructed 400-meter track.
That means mental preparation for competition is always about anticipating the unexpected. Volumes have been written about sports psychology and how to prepare the mind to drive or respond to competition. But the strangest aspect of getting mentally ready for competition is that it sometimes pays to not prepare at all.
The ultimate moment of this counterintuitive thought for me occurred during a college track meet. We were competing at the amazing indoor facility at the University of Northern Iowa. The track was a full 200 meters and housed under a domed facility. Tracks that size were rare in those days, and everyone on our team was psyched up for fast times.
But the mile race I was scheduled to run occurred toward the tail end of the meet. So I parked myself along a wall and went to sleep. Frankly, I’d gotten laid that morning by my college girlfriend and the world felt like it was in perfect order.
So I dozed, and woke up now and then. The meet rolled through its events and I dozed some more. Then I woke up to hear the announcement. “Last call, one mile run.”
I jolted upright. “That’s my event!” I called out. My teammates laughed.
In a rush I pulled off my sweats and tugged on my spikes. There was no time to warm up. I ran to the starter and reported for the race as everyone was being called into line. I tried to act casual. Normally a warmup session for the mile run involved at least ten minutes of running followed by stretching and sprints.
None of that was possible. We lined up, the gun sounded and the race began.
I tucked into the middle of the bunch and was surprised how good I felt. That sleep was still coursing through my veins to some degree. Everything felt relaxed.
We passed through 200 meters in 32 seconds. 400 in 65. I still felt great. No tension. No fatigue.
The entire race went like that. Passing 800 meters at 2:10, I considered speeding up. But I was so relaxed and the slot where I was running felt so unimpeded I just went with the flow.
I ran negative splits for the second half of the race and finished in 4:19, an indoor personal record.
After the race my teammates gave me a hard time. “You should skip your warmups all the time,” they teased. Just sleep until the gun goes off. You’d probably run 4:10.”
That’s the thing with the strange world of being mentally prepared for competition. Sometimes it pays to not have all that baggage of anticipation and fear rolling around in your head. Just go out there and run. Let it ride. Let yourself go.
Leave your worries behind.
That may be the best strategy of all.