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The Key To Calming Pre-Performance Nerves

Photo Credit:  Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This piece was originally published on the ZGiRLS website on October 15th, 2014.

Whenever I ask athletes to think about their very best athletic performance and recall how they FELT immediately beforehand, the most common answer is, “calm” or “confident.” Never once have I had an athlete report that they felt “agitated” or “stressed” before a good competition. Coincidence? No way.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT. It is normal to feel agitated or stressed before competition (especially the high-pressure or important ones), after all the “fight-or-flight” response is an adaptive physiological state and one that has been reinforced through ages of evolution and human survival. Much like an elevated heart rate and heightened senses helped the caveman respond to an attacking predator, when an athlete experiences an elevated heart rate and heightened senses prior to competition, it is the body’s way of stepping up to say “I’m ready.”

But being in an elevated fight-or-flight state can backfire. Often times, when an athlete is in a super-heightened state, they end up either too over-amped or too tense, which often results in over-efforted or rigid (read: poor) performance. Usually athletes perform their best when––despite pressure, nerves, or stress––they feel a sense of calm confidence.

MANAGING STRESS.  So how do athletes find “calm confidence” when the pressure is ON, and their body is in a frazzled fight-or-flight response? The answer is: stress management. Learning ways to manage stress and calm the nervous system should be on every athlete’s list of to-do’s.  It can mean the difference between a magically clutch performance, and painfully choking under pressure.

It sounds incredibly simple, but the best and most-proven way for an athlete to control stress is through deep breathing. Conscious deep breathing not only calms the mind, but it also soothes the nervous system. Essentially, deep diaphragmatic breathing sends a message to the body that says “all is good and safe,” which in turn interrupts the fight-or-flight response. It can transform pre-competition nerves, into pre-competition calm.

STRIKING THE BALANCE.  In order to compete at their very best, every athlete needs to figure out how to strike balance between being physically prepared (senses appropriately elevated and muscles ready to fire), and being psychologically calm (mental state is totally collected and cool). Figuring out the perfect mix of physical arousal and mental calm is a trial and error process and different for every athlete. The cool thing is, athletes who hone their stress management skills and dial in their pre-competition routine, will discover that they have a lot more control over their consistency and execution under pressure than they ever thought possible.

Soon, that calm confidence isn’t something that “just happens” randomly, it is something the athlete creates and controls.