In part 1 of this 2-part series, I shared some of the common causes of stress and nervousness, how to bring awareness to the changes that happen in your unique body when you become nervous, and heard a collective sigh of relief when I shared how some nervousness is actually a good thing!
Now that you’ve made a mental note of where you fall on the nervousness scale, we can take the next step of actually addressing the different ways that nervousness can fall out of the range of what is helpful and energizing in a positive way.
Exercise #1: Discovering Your “Good Nervous”
The purpose of this exercise is to help you get to know YOUR pre-performance signs of good nervous, that is, what happens physically, mentally and behaviorally for you when you are into “good” nervous.
By recognizing what thoughts, feelings, and behaviors lead you to great performances, you can then more easily identify the pre-performance state that you need to achieve to produce your best efforts both in practice and at games/meets/performances.
Sit comfortably in a quiet place where you will be undisturbed for a period of 5-15 minutes. Have a paper and pencil handy. Think back to the last time you had a great performance, where you were REALLY pleased with how well you executed and how you were able to stay in the flow. Close your eyes and mentally take yourself back to this place, but just before it began. See, hear and feel in as much detail right NOW, everything that you did back then.
A) Examine the PHYSICAL sensations in your body. What were you feeling just before the meet and/or those great performances? If you had butterflies, where were they in your body? What did your arms and legs feel like? Did you feel sick to your stomach? Did you feel tired or energized? Were you yawning a lot? How about your breathing? Take a few minutes to jot down all of the physical sensations that you noticed went with these signs of “good” nervous.
B) Next, examine what was going on MENTALLY pre-meet and pre-event. What was the dialogue of your inner coach? What kind of self-talk were you aware of? What were you focused on? Did you entertain self-doubts? Were you looking forward to the start of the meet? Now write down what you can remember to be these mental signs of “good” nervous.
C) Finally, how did you BEHAVE or ACT before the meet? Did you sit quietly or jump around? Did you listen to music, joke with teammates or talk about the meet or things totally unrelated to your sport? What kind of little rituals did you engage in? Write down all the behavioral signs of good nervous.
D) Repeat A-C examining several other great meets or events that you’ve had.
Exercise #2 Discovering Your “Bad” Nervousness
Like the above exercise, the purpose of this one is to help you develop an awareness of your pre-performance level of activation. Specifically, this exercise will help you begin to recognize the physical, mental, and behavioral signs of “bad” nervous or “over-activation.” Knowing that you are slipping into bad nervousness will allow you to utilize one or more of the relaxation control techniques below to bring you back to “good” nervousness and optimal performance.
Sit comfortably in a quiet place where you’ll be undisturbed for 5-15 minutes. Like the first exercise, have a pencil and paper nearby. Think back to the last time you had a particularly AWFUL meet or upsetting practice, a time when you felt totally frustrated and disappointed in how you performed. A time when your poor performance was directly related to being TOO nervous. Close your eyes and mentally return to this time, seeing, hearing and feeling in as much detail as possible all that went on then.
Go through steps A-C above to track the changes you experienced in this “bad” nervous experience.
Exercise #3 Compare and Contrast
Now take a few minutes just to review the differences you’ve discovered between “good”, “bad”, and (if appropriate) “not enough” nervous. If you examined several meets/practices in each category you should begin to see a pattern developing.
“Bad” nervous looks, feels and sounds differently than “good” nervous. In the beginning the differences may even seem slight or very subtle. If you are patient and look carefully at your performances in this way, soon you will be able to quickly recognize the thoughts, physical sensations and behaviors that represent all three kinds of pre-performance nervousness.
Coping with the Bad Nervousness
If you are too nervous before an event, you won’t perform to your potential. If you know that you are into “bad” nervous, what is needed are some ways to calm yourself down so that you can get back in control. Below are a number of relaxation strategies that, IF PRACTICED, will help you turn “bad” nervous into “good” nervous.
Coping Strategy #1
“Tracking” Your Activation Level
One of the most effective ways of learning to master your level of over-activation is by “tracking” or following the “felt sense” part of your nervousness. “Felt sense” is what we notice going on inside our body when we are nervous as opposed to our thoughts or the images that we make in our mind: Felt sense = the increased heart rate, faster shallower breathing, funny feelings in our stomach, physical tension in various parts of our body, shaking, tingling, twitching, etc.
The way our nervous systems works is in waves of activation and deactivation.
When you get nervous or activated, your nervous system has a built in tendency towards equilibrium or balance. That is, your nervous system wants to follow the activation with deactivation or calming down. What will help your nervous system accomplish this balancing act is by allowing your attention to go inside your body to the felt sense, the inner feelings of nervousness, and then simply tracking wherever those sensations go. When you do this, the sensations may increase, decrease, stay the same or change to something else, but eventually, the activation will calm down within a period of 2 -3 minutes.
Coping Strategy #2
Act “As If” You Are “Good” Nervous
One of the first things that you can do to help you stay calm under stress, especially at a big meet, is to try to repeat all the signs of “good” nervous before you perform. For example, if before your very best performances you went off by yourself, focused on your routine, and used mental rehearsal, then be sure to do this before every meet/event. However, if sitting by yourself and concentrating on your event causes you to get too uptight, (and you know that bouncing off the walls, joking around with teammates and having non-sports related thoughts causes you to perform well), then make sure you’re hanging around with teammates and NOT discussing the meet before it starts. Even if you’re uptight before a meet, try repeating the self-talk and behaviors that accompany “good” nervous.
Coping Strategy #3
The BEST way to learn how to handle competitive pressures is on a daily basis in PRACTICE. If you are used to practicing under stress, then you will perform well under pressure. This is the concept of STATE BOUND LEARNING. If you understand this concept it will help you excel when the heat of competition is turned up high.
Most athletes practice in a different mental/emotional state than exists in competitions. In practice they are relaxed and rarely pressured. However, big meet situations present an entirely different mental/emotional state. The best coaches and athletes intuitively understand the concept of state bound learning. They make sure that their practices simulate as closely as possible the physical and mental stressors that are presented in meets. Simulation is based on the idea that anything familiar, that we’re used to, helps us feel calmer. That is, anything that you have to confront day after day will ultimately become so familiar to you that it will no longer cause you stress.
It’s the UNEXPECTED that will knock you off center and cause you to freak out. That’s why it’s so important to move towards your fears and blocks rather than away from them. By integrating competitive elements into your practice sessions, by trying to simulate meet pressures as much as possible, you will best train yourself to handle the heat of competition. This is the concept of ETU. i.e. EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED. If you can anticipate the kinds of things that would normally psych you out, and then practice (mentally and physically) successfully handling them, you will not get knocked off center when they occur.
The above are some of the most effective strategies to help you address nervousness and increasingly tap into a personal state where you can perform at your BEST. But there’s one caveat here, you HAVE TO PRACTICE THESE TECHNIQUES REGULARLY in order for them to be effective!