Starting your race right


You’ve made it to race day, breakfast has been eaten, you’ve parked up at the event. Walking to the arena, bags in hand, you think “I hope I have a good run today”. How many orienteers have this thought run through their mind on the morning of a race. The pursuit of a clean run is the shared goal of just about anyone to pick up a map. Yet often many orienteers see a clean run slide through their fingers, especially at a big race. It is one thing to be fit physically and to have the technical skills ready to take on a course, but putting them together with a stable mind is quite another.

Race start at Australian Nationals – is the state of mind right?

When approaching the problem of mistakes on race day it is helpful to take a step back and look at orienteering from a process based perspective. The sport of orienteering involves performing a number of complex tasks in unfamiliar setting with a high degree of accuracy. Navigating to a control requires utilising a wide range of cognitive skills, all during hard physical exertion. Be too relaxed and intensity is lacking resulting in a slow time. Conversely, being to hyped up and energised can also lead to errors and a breakdown in the execution of the orienteering technique. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot.

One useful model for thinking about this is the Yerkes-Dodson Law, this is a representation of the relationship between arousal and performance. In short, be too relax and performance suffers, be too hyped up or over aroused and performance also suffers. This is should graphically with the inverted U arousal curve.

An arousal-performance curve

So; too excited and aroused, have a bad run, not hyped up enough, also have a bad run. How can you find the optimal arousal level before a race. There are a range of techniques used across a number of sports to help keep the mind in the sweet spot for top performance.

Prior planning

  • This is about anticipating what will happen on race day. It builds the foundation for optimal arousal. Read the event bulletin in plenty of time, take a look at old maps and think “what will I expect to see on race day”. The goal is to have in your minds eye what will happen at the start, this can include things like: What will the map look like? Will we be starting in farmland or forest? What techniques am I likely to need on the first leg? For some people this might include looking at similar maps in advance and thinking, what specific techniques would I use on a leg like this? Say in steep farmland, you may decide that running around hills is a good option for you. Make this part of your plan. As you arrive on the startline think about your planning and remind yourself of your race plan. The familiarity of these thoughts will help to settle and focus the mind.

Process focus

  • When looking at maps in advance or thinking about your upcoming race don’t just browse the map looking at cool areas. Think instead of how you would navigate. Imagine running a leg, what would your approach be to that control? which route choice would you take? Make sure you go through the entire process for each leg from control exit to punching. You can then use this to inform your plan for race day.

Be specific

  • “I’m going to focus on navigation today” is a commonly uttered sentence at an orienteering event, yet it is hugely non specific. Instead of focussing on “navigation”, instead focus on read contour detail over other features. Or, always identifying an attackpoint for each leg. The orienteering process is already complex, the brain needs it to be broken down before race start. This specific focus can also direct some excess arousal into a productive avenue. Use all of that nervous energy reading contours en route to the first control, instead of “navigating harder”. The brain needs specific instructions in a high stakes situation like a race.

Mental Cues

  • These are short sentences or words that can be used to help keep the mind on track and focussed on the productive, specific targets for the day. Some people have short mantra’s they train themselves to be familiar with. For me, I have the mantra “if in doubt, know where you are going”. In training I will say aloud “if in doubt” and immediately look at my map and say “know where you are going”. Doing so in training has conditioned my brain to know that this thought should trigger me to look closer at the map and be prepared for my next navigation step. Come race day, when a moment of doubt comes into my head, it spurs me to look at the map and plan the next part of my navigational process. Another option is a short list of words for after you punch a control. I use D S K; Direction, Simplification, Know where you are going. This is my mental cue to plan in advance for a leg. The cues help refocus a potentially hyped up mind on useful, specific tasks that aid more accurate orienteering.

Put these all together and have the best chance of peak performance come race day. This mental aspect of orienteering is one third of the triad of orienteering performance along with physical fitness and technical expertise. It is the mental side of things and optimal arousal that is often the key element in a breakout successful run.



One Comment Add yours

  1. Matt Bixley says:

    as a late starter to the sport and still feeling like a sponge, this is a great read.

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