Figuring Out My Performance Anxiety

My anxiety attacks started when I went to university. I had nerves when I competed in Jr. high and high school, but this time it was different. I felt hopeless. Debilitated. Completely sick to my stomach, as if I were coming down with the flu. A nightmare. Suddenly I’m brought back to the NCAA Indoor National Championships in 2013 for the Pentathlon. The competition was 5 events back to back, and I was sitting in third place with two events left, which was a shock to me, because I had barely qualified for the Championships. 

The morning of the competition, I had so many nerves in my stomach that I couldn’t eat breakfast. Not one bite. I didn’t help that I was exhausted from restless sleep filled with adrenaline and worry. Because the pentathlon is an all-day event, I figured that I would just eat the snacks that I packed throughout the day when I didn’t have to hurry them down, but 5 hours and 3 events later, I was still running on empty. All I could focus on was the feeling of my sick stomach and the sound of my heart beating in my ears. I was a feeling that I was all too familiar with, one that had followed me around since my freshman year in 2010.

The last two events came and went, and before I knew it, the competition was over, and I had dropped 11 spots and taken 14th. I was disappointed. Devastated. Embarrassed. I felt completely out of control. It was a feeling I blamed on inexperience, one that I thought would dissipate as I collected more high-level competitions under my belt. But still, year after year, that awful feeling creeped up on me every single time I put on a uniform. And each time I wondered, “Why am I still doing this? I HATE this. I hate ME for DOING it!”... then right after I finished competing, relief hit me... then shame. 'This is supposed to be fun. I love this sport, why am I thinking my way into hating it?'

When my senior year moved forward, I knew that I hadn’t reached my full potential, mostly because I had yet to be in a competition where I wasn’t having a full panic attack… literally. I’d climbed under scoreboards to cry hysterically, I tried to find excuses to why I shouldn’t finish competing, and once I even tried to tear my own achilleas to end my career in a way that wouldn’t disappoint anyone. But I knew I needed to keep going. I had more. I could feel it. ‘As soon as I have the experience that I need, this will subside, and I’ll be able to enjoy it’. That was in 2015.

Fast Forward to February 22nd, 2019, almost a decade of sleepless nights and the hatred of the sport I loved, I was at the USA Indoor National Championships. That dreaded feeling began creeping up on me during high jump, the second event in the pentathlon, and slowly drained my energy mentally and physically minute by minute. With two events to go, my throat was so tight that I wasn't sure if I should focus more on trying to breathe or trying not to break down in tears. My body was so tense and stressed that I snapped, almost literally, pulling my hamstring during a long jump attempt and having to pull out of the competition. Being that I was in a healthy Silver medal position up to that point, I found myself once again frustrated, mortified, and truly disgusted in myself. I was walking down Broadway in New York, crying, limping, and picking myself apart. Finally, talking to my parents, I told them that this had to stop. I couldn't continue on this path. I looked them both in the eyes and said "I promise you both. I'm not going to feel like this anymore. I'm going home, and I am going to fix this.”

Something about me: I tend to go on missions. So when I got back, all I thought about was clearing this mental block out of my way. The first step I took when I got home was to figure out what was going on. Why was I feeling this way? I asked myself, yes, but I also asked almost every person around me. Constantly questioning, asking other people to share their mental health journey. “Have you ever been anxious? Have you ever had so much anxiety that you can’t breathe during competition? Why did you feel that way? What helped you get over it?” These are questions I asked daily for months on end. To everyone.

Then I found an answer. I realised that I had been allowing the results of my competition to directly define who I was as a person. 

You won? THAT must mean you’re a winner. 

You did well? YOU’RE amazing! 

You FAILED?? YOU are a FAILURE! You don’t deserve respect, love, or validation. 

I wanted to try something… I wanted to make myself a promise: next competition... no matter the result... there will be smiling, waving, and gratitude for being able to compete and do what I love. NO. MATTER. WHAT. The crazy part? My next competition was Gotzis. One of the biggest Heptathlon competitions in the world, one you had to get invited to in order to go. I was invited for the first time, and I wanted to do my best to “prove” my worth (sooo many eyerolls...), a perfect time for an anxiety attack. But I promised. Smiles, waves, happiness.

And guess what? I did terrible. It was a disaster. I haven’t jumped so poorly in the high jump since high school. But guess what else? No anxiety. Nerves, sure. But it was the most FUN I have ever had during a competition. As soon as I jumped like total garbage, I smiled. I actually laughed. My parents were there, and I walked right over to them with a big grin, a shrug of my shoulders, and said “well, that was embarrassing”. And then They laughed with me. I thought “woah... I’m still a good person, even though I just totally failed. I’m happy to be here, and I’m grateful to be competing and be healthy. I am enjoying every moment of this heptathlon.” The next day, I had a PB second day score. And had zero attacks. I couldn’t believe it. It changed so much for me. I started approaching practices differently, and started having fun in competitions, truly enjoying what I did. It was like my career had just truly begun.

Now, every day when I am at practice, I am not only training my body, I’m training my mind. There are things I do to practice focus, mental strength, and confidence… all which are so important to succeeding in this sport. I’m not immune to nerves, but I’ve learned to embrace and use them, control and calm them, and to stay on target. The trainings allow me to keep from going into full anxiety during competitions. Visualization, positive self-talk, breathing techniques, journaling, and goal setting are basic strategies that help me strengthen and maintain my mental health. 

Handling anxiety is one of the most freeing experiences, but it’s important for me to both say and remember that it doesn't happen overnight. Expecting that one workout would allow us to be fit enough for the Olympics would be unrealistic. Just as so, mental strength is achieved only following persistence and consistency. Practice make progress.

Chari Hawkins is an American track and field athlete competing in the heptathlon.  Chari studied at Bath University in 2017-18 and is looking to compete at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

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