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Competition Jitters

Uncategorized Jun 21, 2017


Shaky, sick to your stomach, sweaty, irritable, headache, muscle tension, diarrhea, vomiting, racing heart, foggy brain, can’t eat or can’t sleep!  Is it the flu?  Is it an infection?  No it’s COMPETITION ANXIETY!


And then right before your main event someone has the audacity to say, “just have fun with it”, when all THAT is going on in your nervous system, I don’t think so!!


Pre-competition anxiety is NOT fun.  But it is a necessary, natural and expected condition during times of intense competition.  The bigger the contest, the more it means to you, the greater your pre-competition jitters will be.  In fact, if you don’t have any pre-competition anxiety before a big event, you need to ask yourself: Are you really up for this?  Does this matter to you?  Are you hungry for success? 


Pre-competition nerves are especially prevalent if you are in an individual sport, where you are on your own at the start and you cannot hide (think figure skating, track and field, gymnastics, speed skating etc.).  In fact, think of it from a very primitive biological standpoint.  There you are, the lion is about to pounce and you are standing still, in a preset position, with no weapons, almost naked, with others watching, waiting for someone else to tell you when you can move and to top it all off, your performance is going to be judged.  If your nervous system doesn’t get activated in those circumstances, there is something really wrong.




So what do you do when your nervous system is reacting more to the Fight, Flight or Freeze reflex, than to the Cool, Calm and Collected response? 


Being anxious about your symptoms of anxiety will only make you more anxious and move you into full on panic.  So instead accept your physiological sensations and normalize them.  Give yourself permission to experience them and tell yourself that everyone else is feeling that way too, it’s normal. 


Even the top athletes, at the peak of their career, in any given sport, have pre-game anxiety.  Do not fight these symptoms or frantically try to get rid of them.  They will only increase.  This is called a paradoxical intervention.  We do the opposite of what we really want to do, to get an intended result i.e. we go with the anxiety in order for us to become less anxious.  We take the path of least resistance and this will begin to calm our mind and body. 


Believe it or not, this strategy even goes for vomiting and diarrhea.  Which actually are both very common before competition.    How common exactly, we don’t really know, because who wants to talk about it?  


So psychologically take it one step further.  Embrace the fact that you just naturally let go of your bodily fluids/contents.  That is the flight reflex at it’s finest.  The body is faster and more focused if it only has to focus on moving as fast as it possibly can and not taking time out to digest or void waste materials.  “Better out than in, I say”.  You don’t need your immediate stomach or bowel contents during competition and you will refuel and rehydrate as necessary, when you are more able.  The key is to follow and trust your own body on this and not fight it.


Nerves Do Not Negatively Affect Performance Outcomes!!


Think, know and believe that your pre-competition jitters do not adversely affect your performance!!  This is huge.  I will say it again.  Nerves do not negatively affect performance outcomes!!  However, your attitude towards your nerves can and does affect performance outcomes. 


Just because your anxiety does not make you FEEL optimally, does not mean that you cannot PERFORM optimally.                                                                                                                                                                                         

Your performance is based on months of training, a healthy and focused lifestyle and a strong mental state.  Even if you cannot sleep or eat the day of or the day before competition, your performance is based on the days, weeks and months of rest and nutrition you have had leading up to competition.  Anxiety cannot be given the power to over-ride the work you have put in.  Even if your legs are shaking in the blocks you can still fire on all cylinders, being the fastest you have ever been.  So don’t be put off by your nerves.  Be confident that you can still perform your best and this will give you a mental edge over those who freak out about their nerves.


So now that you have accepted and normalized your nerves and confidently believe that they will not adversely affect your performance, there are a couple of things you can do while you are waiting for your nervous system to settle back down.  This distinction is a key component in the treatment of panic and it works well in any athletic setting where your nerves are fired up.  We don’t do things to force the nerves or panic to go away, but we can do some helpful things while we are waiting for the nerves to settle. 


If our main goal is to eradicate our nerves, on demand, in a high stress context, we will fail.  No matter what we do it won’t be fast enough or good enough.  That’s when you hear people cry, “It’s just not working!”  Which indeed increases more of their jitters.  Our goal instead is to manage our nerves, tolerate the feelings and sensations they bring up, maintain our confidence and get the job done, resulting in peak performance. 


To illustrate this we can imagine surfing a wave.   The wave of anxiety is going to come and then go.  We can ride the wave, staying on top, being centered, grounded and fluid in motion, and then ease back down to more stable ground, or we can fight the wave trying to overpower it and end up being smacked to the floor, eating sand!


Control Your Jitters!


So in the meantime, while you are waiting for your jitters to leave:


1. Ground your Body.  Allow your body to release and let go some of the muscle tension and decrease the flow of stress hormone, namely cortisol.  This will help keep your anxiety manageable and within your control.                                                                                                                                                                                                      

To relax your body:

Breathe!   Exhale through pursed lips all the way, inhale through your nose – hold for 3, 2, and 1 - then exhale.  Repeat 4 times.  Research has shown that this form of breathing, when practiced over time, significantly decreases physical signs of anxiety, including blood pressure.

Stay in the Moment Notice your feet on the ground.  Then move your awareness in to your toes, the balls of your feet and then up your legs.  You can do this while standing, walking or jogging.  Every time your feet hit the ground just notice, accept and be aware.  This is the beginning of mindfulness training, which has been shown to decrease anxiety and improve performance.

Relax.  Give your muscles a verbal signal to relax and release.  Start at the top of your head, relaxing your facial, neck, and shoulder muscles, moving all the way down your body.  Notice your body posture and assume a more relaxed, confident stance – shoulders back, head up.  Unfreeze your face so you don’t have the “deer caught in the headlights” look.  When you move your body like this, your brain then reads that you are confidently in control; therefore it does not need to send out panic signals. 

 Visualize your body being ready to perform.  Remind your body how it can move freely and effectively.  Envision your best performance.  Close your eyes, or focus on a spot, and see yourself competing to the best of your ability, despite feeling anxious.  Focus on the process, the small steps within your performance.  For more tips on effective visualization training read this

Stay close to those who are calm and step back from those who ramp up their own anxiety.  Anxiety is contagious; so consciously take control of how much of it you want to be exposed to.


2. Centre your Mind.  Clearing your mind from unhelpful thoughts and distractions is key.  When we are activated by anxiety, we reduce functioning in the part of our brain that organizes information, thinks rationally and makes concise decisions.  Under stress we have a bit of a fuzzy, emotional brain that isn’t as cognitively effective as usual.  It may even be difficult to keep track of time, hence we often see athletes checking and rechecking the time, in order to ensure they don’t miss anything.                                                                                                                                      

To focus your mind:

Manage your thoughts.  You are in charge of your thoughts.  There is no tolerance for doubting, negative, or unhelpful thoughts.  If they pop in to your mind when you least expect it: Stop, Block and Change the Channel.  Remind yourself that random thoughts are just that … random thoughts, no more - no less, they don’t need to define you or dictate your performance.  To get some distance from your thoughts, step back and imagine them on a conveyor belt; they come and then they drop off the other end and are gone.

Find a focal point.  Look for a marker in your environment that you can use to remind yourself of your purpose for being there.  Narrow your focus on yourself and the task at hand.  If you get distracted by the venue or your competitors, reset by looking at your focal point and reminding yourself of your purpose.

Dial up your self-talk.  Use helpful, positive language to empower and motivate yourself.  Use “I” statements and give it some energy.  For example: I’ve got this, I belong here, I deserve this, I will let my training do the talking.  Most athletes do this inside their head, but during major competitions you will see them also saying their affirmations out loud for the added benefit of being able to hear them, as well as think them.

Stay in the present.  Anxiety thrives in the past or in the future.  We worry about subpar performances being repeated, or what is to come in the future.  To combat this we want to work on staying in the present.  A simple mindfulness meditation technique that allows us to stay more fully in the present, has us narrate whatever we see around us.  We state the colour and the object.  For example before competition you may see and say inside your head; yellow vest, blue sky, red jacket, green shoes etc.  If you put all of your focus on this for a few minutes, there is no room for any distracting thoughts and your mind will clear. 


3.    Practice, practice, practice.  Don’t expect to manage your pre- competition jitters on the day of competition if you haven’t repeatedly practiced ahead of time.  Practicing techniques to lower your physiological activation levels over time, result in structural changes in your brain.  It is no coincidence that the brains of Buddhist monks who meditate look structurally different from those who don’t meditate.                                                                                                                                                          Just like we build our muscles for peak performance, we need to build our brain and ultimately our mind for peak performance.  If we don’t practice developing these skills the concept of “use it or lose it” applies.  An understanding of our own unique responses to competition and having a plan to practice and deal with it, will allow mind and body to work together, resulting in managing pre-competition anxiety the best way possible, leading to optimal performance.


So bring on the jitters!   You are ready for them and don’t let them stand in the way of your success.


By Susan Cockle