Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Pre-competition nerves: can they be harnessed?

A common concern among athletes of all levels is pre-competition nerves and how to deal with them. No matter how long we've been competing for, or what level we compete at, nerves appear to hold us back.

I, like many athletes, suffer from pre-race nerves. Sometimes they completely hinder my performance, making what should have been a big performance appear more like a laboured recovery jog. Other times they are something in the background that simply makes me need the toilet a little more frequently than normal. Ok, a lot more frequently.

But the one thing that I've found that helps is embracing the nerves; recognising them for what they are, and welcoming them onboard rather than fighting them. They don't like the friendly welcome so much, and often waddle off into hiding in response.

Some otherwise talented sportspeople never fully learn to manage their pre-competition nerves, and performance anxiety can make competition day so unbearable that they quit their sport.

It doesn't have to be like this. Any good sports psychologist will be able to give you techniques to manage your nerves in a positive way.

Athletes of all levels experience pre-competition nerves, but once the gun goes the adrenaline has other outlets.

What are per-competition nerves?
Nerves manifest themselves and affect each individual in a different way. Also known as competition anxiety, pre-meet jitters (or, in the worst cases, choking), pre-competition nerves are a collection of physical and mental responses to increased adrenalin secretion. Adrenalin is required to get us up for a big performance. This 'fight or flight' hormone/neurotransmitter increases our heart rate, muscle strength, blood pressure and sugar metabolism in preparation for strenuous activity and in response to strong emotions such as fear or anger or a perceived threat. Adrenalin secretion is necessary for a good performance, but too much adrenalin or arousal (as 'getting up' for the performance is often called), can result in a number of unwanted side effects.

These unwanted symptoms include 'butterflies' in the stomach, nausea, vomiting, poor concentration, lack of spatial awareness, negative thinking/thoughts, tight muscles, sweaty palms, cotton mouth, feelings of apprehension, desire to urinate, diarrhoea, feeling of fatigue, flushed skin, forgetting details, increased respiratory rate, irritability, heart palpitations, hyperventilation, visual distortion, voice distortion, yawning and vomiting.

Many of these symptoms, particularly the ones that can be described as somatic (or related to the sympathetic nervous system e.g. increased heart rate, sweaty palms, urge to urinate), disappear once the race, game or contest starts; as soon as we have the opportunity to put the adrenaline to other uses. Their presence can be taken as a sign of physiological readiness to compete. They should have no negative effect on performance, so long as we can actually make it to the start line.

However the cognitive state anxiety symptoms - the poor concentration, feelings of apprehension, tiredness, etc. - fluctuate throughout the contest as the probability of success/failure changes. These symptoms, if not controlled, can have a harmful effect on performance. This is when our mind is feeding us negative thoughts which we start to believe.

Nerves are often at their worst when the perceived demand is not balanced by the athlete's perception of their ability to respond effectively to the 'threat'. If you want to do really well in a big competition (perceived demand), but feel inadequately prepared (ability to respond), the nervous response is potentially high. (Conversely if it is a very small competition that you can easily win, your arousal may be insufficient; this arousal malarkey is a fine balancing act).

Managing nerves
Strategies to manage and overcome nerves fall into three main categories. Firstly, relaxation techniques can reduce the level of arousal, and get you into the arousal zone in which you can perform at your best. Secondly, nerves often cause us to think negatively, or talk ourselves out of a certain situation. There are a number of strategies we can implement to redirect these negative thoughts. Finally, you need to learn to embrace the nerves.

If you suffer badly from nerves and anxiety, don't be afraid to enlist the help of a professional. Sports psychologists will be able to provide with strategies and techniques to relax, refocus and respond to nerves.

1) Relaxation Techniques
Examples of relaxation techniques that can reduce nerves, physiological arousal, anxiety and muscular tension include hypnosis, meditation, progressive relaxation and autogenic training. These techniques can be learned and practised in the training environment well in advance of important competitions. The more they are practised, the more effective they will be in competition situations. Techniques like progressive relaxation can be combined with mental imagery techniques to enhance confidence as well as relaxation. Even simple relaxation techniques such as deep breathing will reduce the somatic symptoms of pre-competition nerves.

2) Redirect Thoughts
Having things to distract your mind in the lead up to a competition can be beneficial. Constantly thinking about competition day, wondering how we're going to preform and worrying about every tiny niggle or sneeze, can lead us to over thinking things and imagining barriers to great performances that don't even exist. We also risk becoming over-aroused, or aroused too soon. If you find that you over-think things in the lead up to a competition, find ways to take your mind off it. Plan to go to the cinema with friends the night before, avoid being around other nervous people on the morning of a competition, don't get to the competition venue too early (without risking being late), find things that relax you and which you can do in the build up to a competition.

The negative thoughts that go along with pre-competition anxiety will also need to be redirected out of your mind. Process cues - words that describe the feeling or image of the perfect performance of technique and which you can say to yourself when you recognise the negative thoughts raising their heads - can be helpful. Again these should be prepared and practised in the training.

3) Embracing the Nerves
The third step to overcoming nerves is to simply face them head on. Acknowledging that you're nervous is a good first step. Recognise that nerves is a sign of physical readiness, and embrace them. Verbalise your fears or your symptoms. Over time you can identify the symptoms that you experience, and you can prepare those around you for them, particularly if you get irritable. Tell others (particularly parents, coaches, team mates) what you do and don't like them to say when you're nervous or give them cues which they can repeat when you're nervous.

A few years ago, I arrived at a team hotel the night before a World Championship event and one of the girls, who I knew reasonably well at the time, kept telling me that she had a headache. I asked her if it was nerves, and she said that she thought so. Just raising the issue seemed to lift a huge weight from her shoulders. Her mood seemed to change almost instantly. The next day she went out and had one of the best races of her life. This is just one example of how recognising or acknowledging the symptoms of nerves can help.

Dealing with pre-competition nerves - upcoming workshop
If you would like to learn more about some of these techniques and how to control pre-competition nerves, please come along to our workshop in Adamstown (Co Wexford) on Monday 4th January 2016 (1pm-3pm). Further details to follow. Email eegan41@gmail.com if you would like to attend.

Some useful reading:

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