Sport is a Social Place
Sport is a social world. It's an environment full of different people who are not only attracted to the physical movement, choreography, skill, and strategy of their sport, but are also in it for the social aspect. They like to meet new people, chit-chat, and compare notes. Athletes discuss with other athletes; event-organizers plan with merchandisers; club leaders debate with coaches.
Competing at an event is not always a socially comfortable experience. For one thing, there is usually an enormous group of athletes - more than at any practices, training camps, or workouts. The few times that an athlete gets to experience being around such a large group usually occurs at races. In fact for some new athletes, this is the FIRST time they ever experience this many people competing against them. Does this bring to mind: "Nothing new on race day"?!
Besides the pressure to perform, there are emotional highs and lows at every point in the day, and the need to focus on perfectly executing what you have spent many hours practicing. Conditions are not what you prepared for. Distractions are everywhere. Some people welcome them; some do not.
Before the Race
Some competitors use the social arena and the crowd to their advantage. They calm down when they talk to others. They can get 'into the game' when they discuss the race or conditions with the people standing around, while waiting for their turn to race. Their warm-up might consist of going into a short swim or run with a small group of people. If they lose touch with the crowd, they become nervous and uncomfortable.
Other competitors are the opposite. In order to calm down and get focused, they avoid crowds, stand at the back of the pack to observe conditions and listen to the race talk, and keep to themselves. They require the 'quiet' time to reflect inwardly, plan, and relax themselves. They are usually seen warming up off to the side, stretching alone, doing some running drills, and pretty much staying away from people and noise.
For each of these types of athletes, there needs to be suitable conditions available to assist in preparing for their race start. Their needs are based on the amount of introversion or extroversion they possess. This is easily explained as: extroverts need social interaction to feel comfortable whereas introverts do not. Being one way is not advantageous over or superior to the other, but usually only one way works best for each person. It's simply a reflection of the way humans are wired and the amazing ways that they differ in personality and behaviour.
After the Race
Are you one of those athletes who parties until the last minute at the post-race expo, or who retreats to themselves after your performance? Do you offer a short and succinct "Congratulations" to others, or yell and cheer continually - even help them run across the finish line? There are all types of people -- some are social butterflies, others like to party, while still others like to chill by the beach after they've crossed the finish line, without any fanfare.
I have spoken to athletes who complained that the social activities available after a race or event were not particularly enticing to them. For example, drinking beer after races is quite common in the women's mountain biking world, but what of those women who prefer not to partake of the drink-fest, yet still want to mingle and discuss the race? Another example is with amateur and professional skate and snow boarders. There is a strong trend towards substance-use (marijuana, alcohol) yet a boarder who does not want to 'party' is considered an 'outsider' and might not benefit from having the interactions with other boarders. In that community, coaching and other resources are scarce, and athletes mainly need to depend on their relationships with other (and better) competitors for guidance and coaching.
In triathlon, older athletes or those who are married tend to leave after an event and not hang around to mingle. Does this rob them of the social benefits of staying? Perhaps yes, perhaps no; depends what you are looking for. In any case, you should feel comfortable doing what feels good to you.
Practicing Your Style
When you are training, several of your workouts should be used to simulate as many conditions from competition/race day as possible. Not only will you be working on your physical strategies, but your mental preparation as well. This is the time to begin understanding your focus and under what conditions you feel most comfortable.
Begin working on a pre-race routine. This will consist of a series of words, thoughts, and/or images that you will focus on before you begin a race. Beware! This is not a pre-race "RITUAL". This is not 'bouncing the ball three times' before throwing it up in the air on the tennis serve. This is not 'sneezing into your lucky handkerchief' or 'the waggle' in golf, or the 'hands in the air in prayer position' like we see most professional soccer players do!! Those are rituals. A pre-race routine is a mental focusing tool which prepares you for what you are about to do next.
Although it is a mental strategy, your pre-race routine must be practiced constantly just like any other technical strategy, because it will take time before it becomes learned and comes to you naturally. You will be able to control it better and 'on-demand' when you have rehearsed it a number of times. This is very important so that on race day, you won't have to think about doing it. It will be an automatic response.
The best time to start learning your routine is when you begin your training for the season. Over time, you can refine your routine, create several variations of it for different conditions and situations, and learn from each time that you use it. Just like collecting data from a power meter, you can make the necessary adjustments until you have it right.
Your pre-race routine will reflect your particular social style, and perfecting it will help you to implement it on race-day so that you blend in with the crowds and are able to 'do your own thing' the way you practiced it. If you are the type to socialize before the event, then incorporate that into your pre-race routine by having a training-mate or coach talk with you while you go through your routine. If you are the retreating type, then simulate conditions that would reflect you being alone off to the side of the pack somewhere, as you work through your routine.
So what is this routine, exactly? Well, each person has their own special and unique sequence of actions or thoughts, but here are some examples to help you understand it more clearly:
1. FOR THE ATHLETE WHO LIKES TO FOCUS INTERNALLY: Three deep breaths (diaphragmatic breathing helps to relax you faster and breaths are more easily controlled than chest breathing), see your swim start, visualize your swim, the transitions, the bike, the run, and the arriving to the finish, say a few words that energize you ("strong", or "tempo", or "relax", and a few positive phrases about yourself ("I've got it in me", "I'm prepared"), plus do a check of your body -- feel each body part, and feel your strong MIND.
2. FOR THE ATHLETE WHO IS STRATEGIZING TO BEAT A COMPETITOR: Visualize yourself running along a competitor, chatting with them, and then the sudden 'pull away' that you plan on executing when they are not expecting it. Feel your strong legs; practice a few words you will need to repeat to yourself at that point in the race ("all-out" or "go fast").
3. FOR THE SOCIAL ATHLETE: Review in a visual your practices and the people you trained with, the experiences, the things that made you happy (being with others, laughter, chatter, etc..), see yourself get to the finish line and the emotions that will occur, use some phrases such as "I'm going to have fun", "this is a big party", "race? What race?")
Remember to do these routines during your WORKOUTS! That is where they will stick and over time, begin to occur naturally.
Coaching Style and the Athletes' Preparation
It is important for coaches to understand what kind of social environment their athletes need before a competition and to provide that to them. A coach who likes to talk a lot and prepare his/her athletes with a 'rallying' discussion might alienate those athletes who need to hear something different before they perform. A coach who is distant might not be able to provide the enthusiasm necessary for those athletes who like the pep-talk, or who need to review all details of the course before they set out. Athletes should look for these accommodations from their coaches and there should be dialogue between you and your coach -- express to the coach which is your preferred social environment and see that he/she provides that for you, especially before a competition.
In conclusion, your style is YOUR style. You are likely the BEST at it...so keep with what comes naturally and be true to who you are. Enjoy your racing!