I once received an email from an athlete asking if it was “normal” to break up with her boyfriend in the week prior to her race. Although this is not indicative of a particularly strong relationship, race week stress levels do run very high. It is important not only for the athlete to recognize this, but also for their spouse or significant other to understand the dynamic.
A race is usually the culmination of many, many hours of hard work. But, beyond the time invested in training, it also validates the effectiveness of an athletes efforts. There may be anxiety as to whether an is adequately prepared, or that they will meet their performance expectations. In triathlon the open water swim is often a major source of pre-race anxiety (or terror). Race week may involve travel, which in itself is stressful, and the logistics of getting equipment organized, staying in some semblance of a routine, and closely monitoring a pre-race diet. Life still goes on the week of a race, and the stress from work or family responsibilities only compounds an already stressful situation. Sleeplessness is not at all uncommon during a race week. The athlete is also tapering which means their level of activity is reduced significantly at precisely the same time as when they have an excess of stress and mental energy. This may lead to a feeling of being “flat” or under-prepared for the race.
If you happen to be the (unlucky) spouse or significant your frustration levels may equal that of your athlete's pre-race anxiety. You may find them athlete short-tempered, anxious, moody, and even slightly depressed. Saying things like “it is just a race, what is the big deal?” or “what is your problem, it is not like you are going to win” will only compound the situation. It is a time of myopia and self focus for a lot of athletes and they will have difficulty seeing the big picture. Their racing is very likely a large part of their self-esteem.
First and foremost, it is important for you and your athlete to recognize and understand what is going on; a little objectivity and communication can go a long way. Give your athlete some latitude and space during race week. Realize that their stress is not directed at you personally. That being said, you do not need to be the whipping post. Being a member of their “team” and helping reduce stress levels may bring you closer together. Ask how you can help them, encourage them, and keep things positive. Reducing any of the preparation and logistical stress helps immensely. Allow them talk through their stress and anxiety, and express what they are feeling. Leave a good luck message or note for them on race morning.
As an athlete, you must keep the lines of communication open. Simply saying “I am a little wound up this week because of my upcoming race; I appreciate you putting up with me” can diffuse a very tense situation. Give your spouse or significant other an active role in your racing and allow them to be an important part of your event. Don't marginalize them or tell them that they "can't understand" because they are not an athlete. This will only lead to resentment of your racing. Remember that they may be the one you want to see the most at the finish line, after all most people outside of your immediate family and friends do not have an invested interest in your race. Instead of expounding on your splits and recapping the race, try a “thanks honey, I could not have done this without your help.” If you feel you need some “space” and time to get focused and prepared you should articulate this. Don't expect anyone to read your mind. If your partner is a fellow competitor, they may have a greater understanding of race week stress, but if they are a non-athlete, you will have to communicate to them exactly what you are feeling.
After a few races together, you may fall into a routine and function more as a team rather than adversaries, and race day will be a much more enjoyable experience for both of you. Having relationship issues the week of a race will only detract from your performance and add more stress to an already stressful situation; head them off at the pass. And don't forget, post-race you owe your support staff some personal attention in reciprocation for putting up with you!