Before stepping out into an arena to compete, the final stage athletes have to negotiate is the Call Room. Verity Ockenden writes about a space which can either make – or break – your performance 

Log your 10,000 hours, eat well, sleep well, break the bank for the shoes if you must, but come “squeaky bum” time all can be won or lost in the final quarter of an hour before the gun fires. The last frontier, the space in which the only variables left are entirely down to you and your competitors and how you react to the situation you find yourselves in, is the often-dreaded Call Room.

The mere crackle of peeling paper as hip numbers are slapped on to sweating skin charges the room with an unavoidable electricity – whether you choose to catch a gaze or avoid it, to crack a joke or to remain aloof. This is a place within which the closest of bonds and the fiercest of rivalries between athletes are forged, and you never quite know what you’ll be faced with until you cross that threshold. 

To begin with the bare bones of the beast, one must smoothly navigate the plethora of logistical formalities involved in the differing Call Room procedures of each event throughout the season.

Although certain rules and norms exist, these can vary from country to country and depend on the facilities available and the level of the competition itself. Understandably, it helps if you understand the language spoken at the meet in which you’re competing. Timings for entry to and exit from the Call Room are precise, and protocols within them are strict so planning your warm-up accordingly is the first step to success here.

There’s a very fine line to be trodden between the achieving the optimum timing of your last set of drills or stride-outs and missing the last call. Once you’re inside, there’s really no going back so you must be ready to race both physically and psychologically. 

Personally, I’ll never forget once of my first experiences of a no-nonsense Call Room back when the British Universities Championships were the biggest date on my calendar and I was a naive young 1500m runner.

Gemma Kersey was the favourite to win by some margin and her confident pre-race chatter baffled me, even if I couldn’t help but laugh along nervously. I couldn’t fathom how somebody so serious about the sport could so blithely be pondering the best ice cream shop to visit that afternoon a mere 15 minutes before such a decisive event in her career was due to begin.

That, coupled with the old-school attitudes of our officials who merrily stereotyped us as we begged for one last chaperoned trip to the bathrooms with an “all right, I suppose you girls all need to fix your hair again don’t you?” was enough to sow subtle seeds of doubt in my malleable mind that day.

Somehow, since then, I’ve graduated to coping well and even thriving in these kind of scenarios with many a sickening stomach-lurch and many a laugh along the way. At the 2020 European Indoor Championships in Poland for example, when mask-wearing was mandatory even in the Call Room and for the first time in my life, my entrance on to the track was choreographed for the camera beforehand, it was fun and I felt a power in the absorption of the atmosphere of the Call Room.

Arriving at this point can feel like a consciously performative process at first, but as Olympians such as Alexi Pappas and Molly Seidel have recently advocated after receiving public critique for their smiles and waves mid-marathon efforts, there shouldn’t have to be a divide between pursuing excellence seriously and enjoying oneself while doing so. 

Evidently, experience is a valuable asset in developing the kind of confidence required to walk into such an environment as the Call Room and come out of it the other side unshaken in your attitude. However, while the Call Room can be an unpleasantly anxious place if you let it, it is possible even to enjoy it if you cultivate a good mindset.

You’ll know that perhaps you’ll have your attire questioned and covered in duct tape by an overzealous and intimidating official, perhaps you’ll be assigned a starstruck kid with whom to bump fists as they carry your discarded belongings into the arena for you. You’ll know that all eyes might shift to you when the pacemaker double-checks the splits requested, or perhaps contrarily you’ll find yourself the underdog nobody is watching. Perhaps you’re the only entrant without another team-mate present, an outsider to the camaraderie of their conversation. 

All of these things you anticipate and you find a tried and tested method that suits you and helps you to remain who you need to be on reaching the start line. Of course, you’ll make mistakes and learn from them along the way but isn’t that all part of the game?

» This article first appeared in the March issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here