I’ve heard so many different things from coaches and athletes; nerves are either helpful or hurtful. This makes sense in relation to the fight or flight response, right? You either crumble or become laser focused and get it done. The thing is a lot of athletes aren’t educated in how to deal with these responses, but instead are told to just relax and do your best. Well all of us athletes know that sometimes our best doesn't always cut it when our futures are on the line. Instead of going on and on about relaxation techniques that I have read or been told about, I’ll focus on the experiences I have had when dealing with nerves, or in some cases, lack of nerves.
I have always been a nervous competitor. Not in the sense that I was scared of competing, but I just really, really wanted to win. This competitive adrenaline I experienced always came out during my competitions and I always told those who asked that these “nerves” pushed me. This was just my natural response to competing and I never thought twice about how nerves could have an adverse affect on me if I let them. This changed when I was a senior in high school competing with an extremely low blood sugar. I couldn’t stop shaking and I had to scratch all of my events due to a muscle cramp that resulted from this low blood sugar. I’m not sure what switched so suddenly, but for the rest of that season I was actually scared of competing and having that happen again.
Ironically, low blood sugars and nerves feel almost identical and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. I found myself being very passive on my approaches to my jumps, worrying that I was going to have a muscle cramp again. And although I knew my body was in great shape and my blood sugars were good, it was almost as if my body was forcing me to protect itself and I had no control over it. It took almost my entire senior year of high school to get past this, but I did by being patient. I realized that I couldn’t spend my time worrying about everything I needed to do to have the “perfect” jump or start; I had to worry about one thing at a time. For example, instead of overwhelming myself by going over every single detail of technique, I just decided to worry about the first thing I needed to think about. And that was driving hard at the start of my approach. Then I just went. Now that that’s engrained in me, I let myself choose one thing to worry about for every jump and only think about that. Now I’m not thinking too much and I’m usually able to fix the issue and jump further.
Here are some more things I do to deal with nerves:
Breathing - Although I’ve found that this doesn’t make my nerves disappear, it places my body in a more relaxed state. Doing five minute of breathing on my back with my feet up (breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth) forces my body into more of a parasympathetic tone. My muscles become more loose and relaxed, which can improve performance.
2. Confidence - You can't force yourself to suddenly become confident, but there are ways to improve this. For example, if you’re always frustrated with how your times/distances look in practice and you think it’s going to carry over into your performances, think again. Having a couple bad practices doesn’t predict the outcome of your season. Instead, It’s very normal for your practice marks to be much worse than your meet marks. I ALWAYS jump further and run faster in competitions due to the atmosphere, so I learned there’s no reason to dwell on the bad days. Instead, take things one day at a time.
3. Visualization - I HIGHLY recommend doing this daily. Not only does this build confidence, but there’s actually research out there showing this improves performances. I have found from visualizing the perfect jump over and over, that my body almost feels like I'm jumping in real time. I can physically and mentally feel the perfect jump even though it’s all in my mind. Sometimes I do this in between jumps during my competitions and I can’t count the amount of times it has helped.
On the other side of things, you might have issues with getting yourself excited to compete. I can tell you there are only three situations where this has happened to me:
Waiting - I have jumped in some HUGE flights before where I have had to wait 20-30 minutes in between jumps. I think it’s similar for most athletes, but once I’m warmed up, I’m ready. I don’t want to sit down and cool off. But these things happen and in order to counter this I have had to make sure that I stay warm by doing some fast movements while I wait (high knees/tuck jumps/skips).
2. Atmosphere - Everyone knows that the better the atmosphere, the more fun the competition is. If there are thousands watching, great facilities, good competition, and music, you’re more likely to get that adrenaline flowing. But have you ever been to a meet where it’s just not fun? The facility is bad, it’s incredibly crowded/unorganized, and the officials are grouchy. There’s honestly nothing worse than this. It’s not a surprise that it may be hard to get yourself pumped for a competition like this, but there will always be a couple of these and all you can do is stay focused on what you’re doing and get through it.
3. Training - Sometimes everything feels right. The atmosphere and competition are on point, but you just can’t get yourself to become excited to compete. You should be pumped because your confidence is high and it’s championship season, but it’s just not happening no matter what you do. When this happened to me, I had to look back at my training. EVERY time this had happened during a high level meet I realized that the one thing that was off was my rest to work ratio. My nervous system was over stimulated from too many high intensity workouts and my body was telling me to stop even though my mind was saying keep going, you got this. Once I got some rest and reevaluated where I was at, I was able to get back to where I wanted to be.
There isn't that one special technique that helps everyone with competition jitters, but I have learned from my experiences what works for me. Play around with some of these examples, and let me know how it goes :)