"Fear, before you're actually in the battle, is a normal emotional reaction. It's the last step of preparation, the not knowing...This is where you'll prove you're a good soldier. That first fight - that fight with yourself - will have gone. The you will be ready to fight the enemy."
ARMY LIFE (HANDBOOK), 1944
In part 2 of this deep look at nerves and anxiety, a practical toolkit will be presented for you to have and implement to help in addressing this debilitating state before and during matches. There will be mental, physical, and environmental tools laid out to you and some will work right away, and others will take time and practice to really feel the benefits.
Remember, 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. Try and be open minded to the tools presented and embrace them fully. Also, what works for you now may not work for you in the future, so you may need to come back to and refresh yourself with new and different tools as you grow and evolve yourself and your game.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” - Heraclitus
Identify what you have 100% control over. This will only ever be 3 things:
- My effort
Anything less than 100% is something we may have influence over, but we should not focus on these as it is a waste of mental energy and can become a distraction. Very often the biggest distraction is the result or outcome of the match very closely followed by the occasions and the perceived importance of it. Everyone wants to win, and no one wants to lose and so much emotion in bundled up in the outcome. Focussing on the outcome rather than your processes can contribute to you feeling more nervous and anxious.
The result produces the most amount of motivation for training, however when we compete, we need to push away the focus of the result and come back to the 3 areas you will have 100% control over which is: myself, my effort and now. You need to bring your mind and your body into the present using mindfulness tools.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters” – Epictetus
Recognising negative thoughts that enter your mind, and being able to do this early, allows you to put an intervention in place to better help deal and cope with them. Try and replace them with positive ones especially linked to your strengths and your mantra and how you want to play the game.
Think about what happens to your body when you feel nervous. It is likely your heart rate will be raised, you feel butterflies in your stomach, and you have sweaty palms. Studies on participants have shown that these physical responses in the body are exactly the same as when somebody is excited. So next time you have these sensations, tell yourself that these are exactly the same feelings as excitement. It’s a great way to mentally reframe what is happening to your body and to use the sensations in a positive way.
When you are having negative and anxious thoughts, use this sentence; “I am having the thought that…”. This is to allow the thought in and to accept it is there, but remember it is only a thought. Being able to ‘invite’ in the thought and recognise that it is just a thought can take away its power over you. Here is an example of what I used to try and say to myself before matches when I was catastrophising and couldn’t stop myself from building up absurd stories in my mind;
“I recognise you are their thoughts, and I will deal with you later, for now you serve no purpose or use to me so I am going to choose not to respond to you right now, but we will talk later”
Let thoughts flow into and out of you. Here is a good and timely reminder of the Headspace video about thoughts and how to deal with them.
Visualising the real vivid aspects of your game involving all 5 senses is recommended – whatever you can do to make the imagined experience feel real will aid in translating what you imagine into what you achieve. The benefits of visualisation have been well documented and the brain cannot tell the difference between the real event and the vivid visualisation of the same event.
Visualise yourself playing and controlling the ball exactly how you want it to happen. All too often we focus on playing the name or the occasion. The ball is there to be hit no matter the name of the player, their rating or ranking, their previous form or the occasion you find yourself in. As a player we need to try and keep it boring and emotionless when we are in a competitive match. Think about it like your body is on fire but your mind is on ice. Keep a cool head and stick to your processes that you have full control over.
Look also to establish your winning feeling in your visualisations, list every detail with previous great performances (The Best Matches journal in the SquashMind app will be a useful tool and resource for this). Replay them in your mind the night before or the day of the match. Do visualisations on these previous great performances and relive the feelings and the emotions that surrounded them before you enter your arena to compete.
When you have a negative thought about the upcoming match such as “I won’t win” or “will I look silly”, or “I won’t play my best”; picture a big red stop sign in your mind’s eye. Hold this image for few seconds and allow it to fade away along with the thought attached to it. This can be used to block unwanted thoughts before they escalate and disrupt your performance. It also helps create a sharp focus of attention and keeps you engrossed in the task at hand. This tool is a little different to reframing as discussed above and should only be used in cases where you need a quick and urgent intervention and if you cannot get outside of your own head and mind.
Studies have shown and talk about NOW as being a moment in time that lasts between 2-5 seconds long. In a match of squash, we need to bring ourselves into the now time and time again. If we find ourselves dwelling on the past (“what a bad error that was” or “my opponent is cheating by picking up doubles”) or forecasting to the future (“what a great result this will be” or “what will my parents or piers think if I lose this match”) you are taking yourself away from now and heightening your chances to become nervous and anxious. Being aware and catching your thoughts dwelling or forecasting will be powerful and from there you can bring yourself back into the here and now where your mind and body are in the same place at the same time. This is where mindfulness, and the practicing of this skill daily, can be your superpower.
At this moment and to help you stay in the moment, you can also use the acronym WIN. WIN stands for What’s Important Next? It is a simple but powerful question to ask yourself at the start of rallies where your mind may be dwelling or forecasting. It cuts away all the unnecessary excess of what has happened in the past or what may happen in the future and brings you to the here and now and to attempt to get the next rally started in the most positive and proactive way that will benefit you.
There are a lot of great breathing techniques out there that you can find and experiment what may work for you. I will suggest and present the five-breath technique. Use this before competing or whenever you feel particularly tense. Inhale slowly deeply and evenly in your nose and exhale gently through your mouth as though flickering but not extinguishing a candle flame.
Breath 1, allow your face and neck to relax as you breath out
Breath 2, allow your shoulders and back to relax as you breath out
Breath 3, allow your chest, stomach and back to relax as you breath out
Breathe 4, allow your legs and feet to relax as you breathe out
Breath 5, allow your whole body to relax as you breath out
Continue to breath as deeply for as long as you need to each time you breath out saying the word relax as you do so. Using each exhale to let nervous and anxious thoughts and feelings leave your mind and body.
Focus attention on the centre of your body just behind your navel. It has a calming and controlling effect and can counteract the negative effects of anxiety. Stand normally and comfortably. Close your eyes and breath evenly and feel the air in and out your lungs. Progress to diaphragm breathing and feel any areas of tension in the body. As you exhale let the tension fall away and focus on the feeling of heaviness in your stomach. Continue and focus on the area immediately behind your navel. Maintain attention on that spot breathing normally feeling controlled and heavy and calm. On each out breath use a word that encapsulates feelings and mental focus such as loose, calm, focussed, sharp, strong, confident, etc. As an addition, you can also use and develop a miniature version of this cantering technique between points.
Get your body moving and flowing to get the blood circulating throughout your whole body. When you are nervous and anxious blood does not flow to your extremities and by moving/dancing/shuffling/flowing/quick stepping you allow the blood to get to your feet and hands. You can make this a fun and enjoyable experience and even a bit ludicrous so you can laugh at yourself a little and not take things so seriously. Let’s see what crazy dance moves you can employ! When you move your feet and rock and roll your body and hips, this is the opposite to nerves. Keep it simple such as bouncing on the spot, working on a little footwork pattern or rhythm, finding a dance move you saw on TV, anything really that gets you up and about and active whilst having a little fun in the process.
Distract yourself. Do not underestimate the power of distracting yourself when it comes to reducing nerves and anxiety. Sing a song, write a blog, do a crossword, play a game, get a colouring book. Anything really that takes your focus away from getting caught in a negative spiral in your mind. Be aware not to go too far and be totally underprepared for when the match begins. You still need to be able to lock in and focus when it’s required.
Alternatively, you can do something different than you have always done. Some players, for example, take things very seriously and do long warmups and take themselves off to be alone and really try get their focus high. Nothing wrong with this of course, but if you are this type of player and still getting nervous and anxious (maybe due to being hyper focussed), look to do something different than the norm and almost go as far as doing things the opposite of what you have done in the past. There is no harm in trying this especially if you have found that over time you have not been able to get on top of your nerves and anxiety. On the other hand, if you do not do any warm-up or mental preparation and are getting nervous, then you need to address this and begin to get a pre-match routine and habit going in order to attempt to get the mind and body ready to compete.
I like to think of environmental interventions and tools as things you need to do before the competition or event itself. This is where you need to try and create and train within an optimal environment to get you prepared to cope better with nerves on that day. This is a skill to hone and get better at on a daily and weekly basis and takes time and patience and a checking in process with your habits and behaviours is recommended. I am a firm believer in the “Spill Over” effect, which means that everything we do tends to spill over into everything we do. How can we expect to be focussed, calm, in the moment and present, when large parts of our day-to-day life is rushing about, reacting to things, constantly distracted with levels of anger and frustration? Surely not an optimal environment to cultivate strong mental habits in order to help deal with nerves and anxiety before and during a squash match?
Look at and assess your training environment. Your training environment needs to be one of skill mastery i.e., your personal skill development is emphasised rather than your superiority over your piers (performance climate). Simply put, are you helping yourself by focussing more on your processes rather than your outcomes? If all you are too tuned into just getting the results in each match or practice session you partake in, you are training your mind to be overly focussed on this. And as we know, we have very little influence over the outcome or result. Where we have 100% control over, however, is our processes. Remember, myself, my effort, now! Ensure you are training these 3 controllables on a regular and consistent basis.
Getting into the habit of a morning and evening journaling process about your thoughts, intentions, goals and gratitude is an amazing way to help calm things down mentally as well as hold you accountable for what you want to achieve each day. The French painter Eugène Delacroix says,
“It’s a way of calming this nervous excitement that has been worrying me for so long”
It’s a few minutes of reflection that both demands and creates stillness. It’s a break from the world. A framework for the day ahead. A coping mechanism for troubles of the hours just past. A revving up of your creative juices, for relaxing and clearing the mind.
Stephen R. Covey, in his best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People states,
“Writing is a neuro-muscular activity which helps bridge the conscious and subconscious minds. Writing distils, crystallises and clarifies thought and helps break the whole into parts”
Look to start a daily meditation habit. You can start off very small and look to create a good streak over 14-days with just 3-5 minutes each morning. The benefits of meditation are well known now, and it helps you to pay attention to thoughts and feelings. We can train the parts of our brain that help awareness by building a meditation habit and this is exactly what is required for us to deal with nerves and anxiety before and during matches. Awareness is your key and first step to being able to deal with nerves and anxiety. Headspace and Waking Up are two very well know apps to help start you off on a mediation journey. I personally use Waking Up each morning and evening and find it one of my most powerful tools and habits. I attach my meditation practice to my journaling habit, and both of these set me up wonderfully for the day ahead as well as calm me down and help cage my monkey mind for the evening so I can get a restful and deep sleep in
This technique can be done the night before in bed as you lie down and to not be disturbed. Allow your mind to wander over each part of your body starting from the tips of your toes and working up to the top of your head. As you focus on each part of the body tense the associated muscles for a count of five and then ‘let go’. Repeat this process more if you need to. Once you have done this over the entire body then tense the entire body, hold for five, and then ‘let go’. You will feel tranquil and deeply relaxed.
In summary, you have been presented with a wealth of tools to use to help you cope better with nerves and anxiety. Remember that we all will experience nerves and anxiety and the key is to not try too hard to block them out or ignore them. You now also have a great understanding of how nerves and anxiety arise as well as interventions to put in place to help you deal with them in a more positive way. Not all the above tools and techniques will be relevant for you but work on finding a way that suits you best. It takes a bit of trial and error and do not dismiss a tool only after one try. Attempt it for several tries at least and commit to it.
Finally, I would encourage you to look closely at your environment and what you are doing on a daily and weekly basis to help the mind so when you come to compete it is not a million miles removed from what you are doing on a steady and consistent basis over time.