This morning, I had a mock Kung Fu grading which provided me with an opportunity to be assessed for readiness for the actual grading, scheduled for Tuesday evening.
Despite the fact that I have been training hard, doing extra sessions, and studying outside of class, I got nervous. And even though I am a Psychologist who has been trained in Sport Psychology, I momentarily thought I was going to throw up before the mock grading began!
Why do nerves get the better of us sometimes?
- I felt nervous because this upcoming grading is really important to me, and something I want to excel at. I wouldn’t feel nervous if Kung Fu didn’t matter to me, or if I didn’t care how I performed on Tuesday. This tells us that nerves are related to motivation.
- Even if we are physically in the best condition ever, the pressure of a situation can create an experience of “choking”, which is where we freeze under pressure, and ultimately creates a failure in performance. An example would be a swimmer who has been training their whole life to make it into the Olympics, only to be disqualified for false starting twice.
- Sometimes what we are telling ourselves about a situation can add to an increase in anxiety and an acceleration of the fight or flight response. For example, if I was saying “oh sh*t, I hope I remember everything” then this starts planting the seeds of doubt in my mind about my ability to recall the components of performance I need to remember.
- Paying too much attention to mistakes (the past) or what’s ahead (the future) can trip us up because we lose focus on what we need to be doing right here, right now. For example, I became aware of an error today in my sword drill performance, and ‘beating myself up’ in my head about this led to another stuff up shortly afterwards.
- Fear of failure: when we set ourselves a goal that is meaningful to us, such as obtaining the next belt level in Kung Fu, it can be associated with a fear that we might not reach it. This is known as fear of failure in Sport Psychology, and can be detrimental to performance as it can lead to giving up without even trying.
What can we do to deal with pre-performance nerves?
- Breathing: when the fight or flight system is activated, we experience an increase in physiological arousal, and one of the specific changes that occurs is to our breathing. We end up taking short, sharp, shallow breaths which can lead to dizziness, light headedness, and a dry mouth. Get into the habit of taking slow, long, rhythmic breaths out, and try to breathe in through you nose as this forces a slower inhalation compared to mouth breathing.
- Mindfulness: Remind yourself that any mistakes that have happened are in the past, and you can’t do anything to change the fact that they have happened. The future is not yet here, so there’s no point getting worked up about what the instructor might ask me to do once I’ve finished performing this technique. Pay attention instead on the here and now, what you are doing in this moment.
- Self-talk: use cue words and phrases to help focus your attention externally (e.g. “focus on what the instructor is saying”, “pay attention to my footwork”, “energy!”, “low stance”) rather than internally (e.g. my racing heart, the butterflies in my tummy, my confused brain)
- Reframing the experience of nerves or anxiety: Instead of telling myself “I’m so nervous I could throw up”, reframe the nervous energy to “I’m feeling ready for this! I’m excited and pumped! Let’s do this!” Remind yourself that nervous energy is a good thing, because it means you are motivated to perform well and this nervousness gives you enough energy to be able to push through when tired, sore or even injured.
- Simulation training: create high-pressure situations in training so that when the real event takes place, you have practiced your performance and ways to deal with nerves already and that way there are less surprises. Asking a training buddy to test you on a random technique is a great strategy.
- Physical Relaxation: When the fight or flight system is activated, the nervous energy can create muscular tension in our body. A useful technique is to use a quick body scan to mentally check where these tension points might be in your body, and then to perform a quick release by breathing into that area, or stretching that area out.
- Pre-performance routine: create a plan of action to follow for the day of the event, and write it down. An example for myself for Tuesday’s grading would be: get an early night on Monday so I wake up feeling well rested; plan to eat healthy, energizing foods throughout the day; pull out one random study card each hour and test my knowledge on Chinese and English translations and meanings of different terms throughout the day; when I get home from work at 5pm, have a small snack; spend 30 minutes reading through my syllabus and doing some imagery (recreating in my mind, the techniques I will need to do for the grading, and ‘seeing’ myself performing them perfectly); have a glass of energizing Kombucha and a big glass of water; head to the venue early and do a 5 minute warm up and then 30 minutes of physical practice; use the bathroom one last time; give myself some encouraging self-talk (e.g. “you’ve worked hard, you can do this!”) and remind myself of a few key points that I want to focus on for the grading (e.g. “lead with toes” and “eyes up”).
I’m planning on taking my own advice and incorporating all of the above psychological skills to help me succeed on Tuesday night. I’ll keep you posted! In the meantime, I would LOVE to hear your go-to tips for dealing with pre-performance nerves.