Competitive athletes: Are your races a threat or challenge?

Dr Josephine Perry explains how athletes can harness pre-race tension to enhance their racing performance

It’s race morning and an early start. You’re finding breakfast difficult to swallow because thousands of butterflies appear to have taken up residence in your stomach. This is a common feeling for many of us. But rather than dread these nerves, you can take comfort because – used in the right way – they can actually be useful. These emotions can set off some helpful chemicals (cortisol and adrenalin) in our bodies and raise our heart rate so we are alert and ready for action. You just need them to stay on the right side of the tipping point – the side when the butterflies gently flutter rather producing a full-blown battle. Used strategically, these pre-race nerves can help us see the race in front of us as an exciting challenge, rather than an ego crunching threat.

The science behind threat and challenge states

When we are about to compete, we unconsciously evaluate the demands and stressors of that event. The transactional theory of stress[1] highlights that it is not the actual demands and stressors which are the problem, but how we each appraise them, and decide whether we have the resources (ability, previous experience, skills or support) to meet them. If the outcome of this evaluation is that we CAN cope with the demands and stressors then we find ourselves in a challenge state. Here we are able to engage with the race, focus on the required tasks and use positive and effective coping strategies. If, however, we perceive that we don’t have the resources to deal with what we are confronting, we find ourselves in a threat state. This makes us feel as if we are putting ourselves in some type of danger[2] and negatively impacts our sporting performance[3]. Figure 1 provides more information on threat/challenge states.

Figure 1: Model of impact of traits on challenge or threat state

Take two imaginary athletes standing on the start line of London Marathon this year. The runner who is used to doing ultra-distance races in hot weather and was using the race as a training run is likely to have seen the marathon that day as an exciting challenge to be involved with. A first timer who hadn’t run more than 16 miles in training, all done in cold weather, and who had set themselves a tough time goal is going to interpret the demands of that same race very differently -and is likely to see it as a threat.

There are too many potential stressors for us to plan for how we would react to each one (a 2012 study identified 339 distinct stressors[4]). Instead therefore, researchers have looked to see if there are any characteristics in an athlete that would predict how they would respond to a difficult situation. They have found that self-confidence, perceptions of control, levels of mental toughness or personality traits like extraversion, neuroticism[5] and perfectionism can influence whether we are likely to perceive a situation as offering us a challenge or becoming a threat[6]. The ‘challenge’ athletes are confident, approach their goals actively, feel in control of the situation[7] and have high mental toughness.[8] Those seeing a race as a threat have been found to display poor focus, low self-confidence and no feelings of control.

Having sifted each race situation through our personal filters and pushed ourselves into either a challenge or threat state, we enable this state to influence our emotions, behaviours and the quality and speed of our cognitive functioning. In a challenge state this often means we helpfully opt for problem-focused coping (trying to resolve the problem itself) rather than the more negatively charged emotion-focused (such as venting) or avoidance (removing yourself mentally or physically) coping methods that we are more likely to use if we feel under threat.

One of my clients is a runner called Lauren Thomas, whose favourite race distance is 5km. She says she’d love to move up to marathon distance but is currently too anxious to do so. She knows she has the resources to cope with a 5k so is comfortable signing up to those, but once the distances get longer her inner butterflies get violent. Lauren explained to me: “The 30 minutes or so before a race I am at my absolute worst. I’ll be pacing a lot and right at the start when they’re doing a briefing I’m so stressed out and am just desperate for them to stop speaking so that I can start. A bit of adrenaline is a good thing, but what I’m doing is just self-sabotage.”

Lauren Thomas

Turning your threats into challenges

So, if like Lauren, you want to stop feeling like a bag of nerves and instead be a bundle of excitement, what can you do? While personality traits are usually pretty much set in stone, other areas can definitely be worked on through psychological interventions[9]. For an athlete like Lauren, building up confidence, developing higher levels of mental toughness, being goal focused and having prepared in depth will help her feel more in control and boost her perception of whether she can cope with the demands of longer distance races.

Key strategies to help produce a ‘challenge state’

*Have a great goal – If you set realistic but stretching goals, and break these down into processes that you can continually incorporate into your training, you’ll be able to get to the start line feeling like you’ve done everything you needed to. Hywel Davies, 43 is an athlete and coach who has really embraced pushing himself. Among his many sporting achievements are an indoor rowing world record, a marathon PB of 2:30 and five sub 9-hour Ironman finishes. But even for someone so accomplished, he admits that he used to go into a ‘threat state’ ahead of competitions – mostly due the expectations he felt were upon him to win. To fix this he drastically changed his goal. As Hywel explained: “I decided to change my goal from one of winning to one of having fun. Rather than fit in with the norm, I worked against it. For example, I changed my usual racing kit to a Hawaiian shirt. This meant that I was attracting positive humour, especially when I was leading a race or in the mix. I got a marathon PB of 2.30 at London wearing the shirt.”

*Boost your confidence – We get our most robust confidence from two sources; knowing we have the skills to do what we need to do and knowing we have done it before. To boost our confidence therefore, we need to be constantly reminding ourselves of both of these points. Helene Rossiter is a triathlete who last year raced in the Ironman World Championships. She used to get nervous but has built her confidence by reflecting back on her achievements. “I talk myself into being calm. I look at my previous month’s training and I remind myself of the successes during it. I focus on the general course of my improvement.”

*Build your mental toughness by preparing properly – Sport psychologists disagree about exactly what makes an athlete mentally tough. However, the consensus view that that this quality includes elements involve high confidence, perception of being in control of a situation, constancy and taking responsibility for achieving goals. Last winter, Ollie Stoten undertook a challenge most of us would definitely see as a threat – to ski across Antarctica. This was despite knowing the last person to attempt this had died and that there were so many things which could go wrong. Stoten’s challenge approach was to prepare extensively around the things he could control and it worked. As he explained: “Now, in all my races I focus on prepping well so I can control the controllables. This re-framing helped me to also see the butterflies and pre-race nerves as excitement rather anxiety. If you have trained, planned and done your prep, now you can get excited about executing your race.”

Ollie Stoten in Antarctica

Key terms

Stressors – the events or situations which put demands upon you.

Challenge state – when we feel we have sufficient resources to meet the stressors we are facing.

Threat state – when we assess we do not have the resources required to deal with the situation in front of us.

Coping mechanisms – the approach we take to handle difficult situations. Three key approaches are:

  1. Problem-focused coping (trying to resolve the problem itself).
  2. Emotion-focused coping (venting or showing emotions).
  3. Avoidance (removing yourself mentally or physically).

An ABC of techniques to get into a challenge state before a race

A: Completing a what-if plan: To be fully prepared we need to confront our fears. This requires the following steps: A complete brain dump of all the uncontrollable things which worry us about our race instead considering only the things we CAN control; Creating a plan to prevent each controllable element from happening; Making a plan of action for what we would do if they did happen.

B: Remembering your successes: Keeping a training diary is helpful for many things but especially helping us remember everything we have done in the build up to a race. We tend to remember the negatives so seeing great sessions written down in our own writing can boost our confidence.

C: Conduct a strengths audit: To remind ourselves that we do have the resources to cope with what is about to be thrown at us think through where your strengths lie. Write down your physical, mental, logistical and mindset strengths and keep the paper in your wallet or kit bag so it is easy to access when the nerves come knocking.


  1. The handbook of behavioral medicine, 1984. 282-325.
  2. The social psychology of stigma, 2000:307-333.
  3. J Experimental Social Psychology, 2004. 40(5):683-688.
  4. Scandinavian J Med & Science in Sports. 2012. 22:545-557.
  5. Personality & Individual Differences, 2004. 36(6), 1483-1496.
  6. Int Review of Sport and Ex Psychology, 2009. 2(2):161-180.
  7. Int Review of Sport and Ex Psychology, 2009. 2(2):161-180.
  8. Personality and individual differences, 2009. 47(7):728-733.
  9. Medicine & Science in Sports & Ex, 2008. 40(2):387.

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