PUT DOWN THOSE WORRIES
What is it about writing that helps an athlete? ‘Negative self-talk can occur in athletic situations,’ says psychologist Sian Beilock, director of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago, US, and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting it
Right When You Have To (Free Press). ‘Getting the worries down on paper makes them less likely to pop up in a competition situation. It’s akin to downloading them from the mind.’
Beilock’s conclusion is based on a study she did with groups of students about to sit an exam. Students in one
group wrote down their thoughts and feelings about an exam right before taking it, while a control group did no such writing. The students who wrote performed significantly better on the exam than the control group, and those who were the most prone to test anxiety showed the most improvement over their past test performances.
Runners who have used writing in their preparation find these benefits apply to their performance as well. ‘I can be relaxed on the day of the race,’ says Fleshman. ‘Anxiety comes from just not having verbalised. It’s almost like your brain is full of gibberish. Sometimes you just need to translate it. You’re writing your own story, really. It makes you feel in control.’
To gain confidence before a race, Fleshman says, ‘I look at the work I’ve done and also at my goalsprocessing pages so I can remember why I’m actually doing this, which helps quiet the noise, negative thoughts and extra nonsense that pop up right before a big race.’
The day before a race Ramirez writes down what could happen. ‘You can’t predict everything,’ he says, ‘but you can prepare for some situations. And then, as the race plays out, you can fall back on your thinking [from] the night before and race according to plan.’
Vaccaro says she’s a visual person, so writing goals and plans down helps to lay them out where she can see and process them more effectively.
Writing also helps Fleshman judge her expectations. ‘I spend time processing – “Where am I in my training? What can I expect from myself? What’s reasonable? What’s extraordinary?” – and then line up expectation with that,’ she says.
Besides race preparation, regular writing can help throughout your running year. ‘Writing is a way to learn,’ says Richard Kent, director of the University of Maine Writing Project and author of Writing on the Bus, a guide for sports teams using journals. He has worked with many types of athletes to amplify their understanding of their craft.