The foundation of mental toughness is your ability to stay calm and composed under pressure. If you can’t control your level of pre- and during-event nervousness, your performance will ALWAYS be inconsistent and you’ll never reach your potential.
All the talent, strength, and coordination in the world won’t help you if you get too uptight before you compete. Excessive nervousness will neutralize your edge and leave you physically tight and mentally tentative.
Part 1 of this 2-part series is designed to teach you how to “read” your own level of nervousness, and then part 2 will show you how to handle it if you find yourself getting too uptight before or during a big meet/game/performance.
The Causes of Stress
There are many things out there that can get you too uptight to perform your best. The importance of the event, size of the crowd, your level of skill preparedness, strength, the arena, the judges, order of events, the appearance of your competition, the weather, etc. You may THINK that these are the reasons that you start to feel nervous, and that this is what’s causing your stress, however that is not entirely the case! In relation to stress:
All those things mentioned above are not really what’s making you tense, it’s what you SAY TO YOURSELF about these things that does. It’s all about how you interpret the stressors and how you deal with them.
To put it simply:
PEOPLE, PLACES, AND SITUATIONS DON’T MAKE YOU UPTIGHT, YOU MAKE YOURSELF UPTIGHT!
The biggest cause of freezing, stress, and poor performance in athletes who are otherwise qualified and able to execute the skills of their sport is focusing on the uncontrollables mentioned above, things that you really have no control over yet spend mental energy worrying about anyway.
Mentally tough athletes focus on the one thing they can ALWAYS control, THEMSELVES! You are in total control of how YOU CHOOSE TO REACT to all of the uncontrollables happening around you.
If you’re “not enough” nervous, your performances will be flat and uninspired. If you’re into “bad nervous,” you’ll be physically too tight to execute well. If you’re in the “good nervous” zone of medium arousal, where you’re excited but not tense, energized yet maintaining a sense of inner calm, and your thoughts are focused on the task at hand, then you’re ready to perform to your potential.
Every athlete is different on this arousal curve and responds differently to pressure. What stresses one athlete out into “bad” nervousness gets another into the “good” kind and doesn’t get a third out of “not enough” zone.
It is critical for you as an athlete to be able to READ YOUR OWN LEVELS OF NERVOUSNESS and to be able to clearly tell the difference between all three.
Because understanding this about yourself will help you do something constructive to address it. AWARENESS IS KEY.
For example, if you know that you are entering the “bad” kind of nervous, then you can do something to calm yourself down or “de-activate” your nervous system before your performance suffers, allowing you to catch yourself and shift your focus to where it needs to be.
There are three ways that you can experience nervousness, and therefore 3 ways that you can read your level of pre-performance nervousness.
- Physically (physical changes in your body)
- Mentally (changes in your thoughts, self-talk and focus)
- Behaviorally (changes in how you act)
As you begin to get nervous, PHYSICALLY your body immediately responds with increased heart and pulse rate, faster and shallower breathing, tighter muscles, butterflies in your stomach, and/or feelings of nausea, cold hands and feet, dry mouth, increased sweating, frequently yawning and an urge to urinate. MENTALLY, your thoughts have a tendency to speed up, you experience difficulty concentrating or you tend to focus on the wrong things, you become critical of yourself and others, you begin to entertain self-doubts and fears, and you find yourself locking your concentration in on the source of your doubts. As you get nervous your BEHAVIORS also change. You may stop moving and sit quietly, you may start jumping around and talking non-stop. You may get very serious or very giddy. You may become angry, or you may engage in nervous habits or superstitious rituals.
Any of this sound familiar?
Awareness and recognition is the first step. All of these changes are neither good or bad. They are simply indicators of what happens to you when your nervous system gets activated and you start feeling that. Your job is to figure out which of these changes are associated with good nervous, bad nervous, and not enough nervous for YOU. That way you’ll be in a position to change your arousal if needed.
For now, start to pay attention to this in your practices, games, or performances. Make a mental or actual note of the changes you experience and where on the nervousness curve you think you are. Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll share the strategies you can use to cope with these imbalances.
Can you “read” your nervousness and recognize where you tend to fall on the performance/nervousness scale: “good,” “bad,” or “not enough” nervous?