“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same” – Rudyard Kipling from the poem If
Nerves and anxiety for athletes in competition is one of the most debilitating states that contribute to underperforming. This blog will attempt to look closer at why and how nervousness and anxiety appears before matches and to also put in place some tools and interventions to help you cope better with this unwelcome, but often very present state in your competitive matches.
Let me start by saying that even the top athletes in all sports feel and experience nerves and anxiety all the time. Some are just a lot better at not showing it on the surface and have found strategies how to do this as well as channel these feelings in a positive and productive way to enhance performance. You are not alone when it comes to feeling nervous before an event and you can take some solace and comfort in this. You need to acknowledge and accept that the nerves are there, and you don’t have to ignore them.
It is also worth noting that nerves are very different for each individual and there is no singular type of nervousness and equally so there is no singular strategy or technique that works for everyone. You need to find and then adapt certain techniques to suit your needs, and part of finding what works best for you will be trial and error over a period of time.
The major problem in competition is letting you mind work against you rather than for you. You should accept nervousness as a part and parcel of competition and only then will nervousness and anxiety begin to help and facilitate your performance. You don’t want to forecast and dread the feelings of nerves and anxiety. If you fear the nerves, then each time before you compete you end up making it a bigger and scarier monster than it needs to be. You need to try and get used to and make sure you know and accept that nerves are part of the deal of competitive sport.
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you” – Rudyard Kipling from the poem If
Why and how nerves and anxiety arise
We have been hardwired from thousands of years ago to spot and see threats in our environment as early as possible in order for survival. Our great ancestors had to battle with survival on a daily basis and having our brain tuned into this hostile environment meant we were able to procreate and keep the human race alive. Without this ‘threat’ view of the world we may not have been around for too long. When we perceive a threat in our environment such as a movement in a bush or a snapping of a twig when we are out hunting in the savannah, our brain primes our body to get into a state of flight, fight or freeze. The front part of your brain gets shut off, this is the part of the brain for reasoning and rational thoughts and can help control your emotions. When it is shut off it is very hard to perform a cognitive or skill-based task well such as squash. The survival part of the brain is now doing the heavy lifting. What happens now is that blood goes away from the extremities and goes towards your heart and centre, you then feel stiff in the limbs and clammy in the hands and you often can’t move that well because there is little blood flow around the body. But on the other hand, the heart is pounding hard, and your breathing gets shallow. You receive a shot of adrenalin, but this is not a good thing in the wrong context, it can be used for good, however. If you are physically shaking, there is adrenalin in your system, but this is not useful for performing skills where your life is not in threat.
If we fast forward a few thousand years now and when we are about to enter a situation such as a competitive squash match, a public speaking engagement or even going to a party with strangers in a new town we have just moved to, this is not a matter of life or death. But deep down inside our lizard part of our brain that our ancestors relied on to survive, the threat mechanisms kick in and we begin to feel nervous and anxious. At this point we are perceiving this activity we are about to do as a major threat and our brain is sending signals to our body to get ready for flight, fight or freeze. Not an ideal state at all when we want to be present, focussed, relaxed and be able to execute our movements and perform our skills that we have trained.
Michael A. Singer talks about this part of our brain and the response in his book The Untethered Soul.
“Many of us no longer lack food, water, clothing, or shelter; nor do we regularly face life threatening physical danger. As a result, the mind has adapted toward defending the individual psychologically, rather than physiologically. We now experience the daily need to defend our self-concepts rather than our bodies. Our major struggles end up being with our own inner fears, insecurities, and destructive behaviour patterns, and not with outside forces.”
One way that athletes help to reduce and mitigate nerves is in their focussed and consistent training (both mental and physical). This also applies to soldiers who face and encounter fear when entering the unknown on the battlefield. Training is the key to overcoming fear in any and all situations. What we do not expect, what we have not practiced, has an advantage over us. What we have prepared for, what we have anticipated, we will be able to answer. You need to look at and think about what your training entails and ask yourself is what you are doing on a steady and consistent basis over time going to help with my nerves before a match?
Nervousness and anxiety are inevitable outcomes when the demands of the competition exceed our perceived abilities. Squash places a wide variety of stressors upon us such as what the world will think of this result or performance, physical hurt, ego bruising, parents and spectators, expectation of success, and so on. We need to be mindful of and work at reframing this perceived threat into a welcomed challenge.
Jones says “it is the perception of our ability to control our environment and ourselves that determines the anxiety response”
When your thoughts start, you do not have to go with them. You can begin to observe your thoughts and let them pass through you, here comes the thought and there it goes. This is what is known as being centered and a very powerful state of mind to be in. If you are not centered, your mind is just following whatever catches it’s attention. This can make you feel all over the place and your energy is very scattered. For example, you start to have thoughts or feelings such as "I am going to look foolish in this match", or "if I lose this match my ranking will suffer", or "this is such an important match and I need to get it spot on". Do these statements sound familiar? Or a version of these examples? They are very common, so you are not alone!
But if then you ruminate on these thoughts or feelings they begin to capture your consciousness fully. This now adds fuel to the thought or feeling and grows in importance and demands more and more of your attention. Consciousness is a tremendously powerful force and if you don’t let it go, it can get completely out of control. Letting go means falling behind the energy instead of going into it. It’s simply the matter of taking the risk that you are better letting go than going with the energy.
Start with letting go with of small things such as being honked at in traffic, or packing the wrong shirt for a match, or having the court and time of your match changed. If you can learn to remain centered with the smaller things, you will see that over time and with practice you will be able to remain centered with the bigger things.
“A wise person remains centered enough to let go every time the energy shifts into a defensive mode” – Michael A. Singer
Watch this short video from Headspace detailing a very simple way to let thoughts come and go and to help give yourself perspective of not going with the thoughts and trying to “stop the traffic”.
This now presents us with an opportunity for growth and a chance to liberate the body and the mind. If you believe you can cope in a situation you will strive to achieve the goals with positive expectations of success. Having positive expectations will invariably mean that you will be more confident and therefore more likely to perform close to your best. This interpretation will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stress can be a positive influence, but we need to not perceive the stress to be negative. If you believe you can cope in a situation you will strive to achieve the goals with positive expectations of success. Pressure is you rally cry, and it will bring out the best in you if you are able to accept it and channel it in the correct way, just as coal under pressure produces a diamond.
You need to develop excellent self-awareness because if you know how you feel you will better understand the roots of your anxiety and nervousness. In part 2 I will look at using mental, physical and environmental tools to help you cope better with the nervous and anxious feelings you may have right before you compete.