Every athlete in professional sport has been nervous before a big game or event. That horrible feeling of sweaty palms, difficulty breathing and a racing heart rate happens to the very best. If left uncontrolled, this can lead to devastating performance anxiety (Woodman and Hardy, 2003).
As humans, we have evolved to display these physiological symptoms when confronted with a stressful situation. If the physical symptoms of nervousness can’t be prevented, the best form of attack is to control them. Perfecting how to stay calm under pressure is one of the most important mental tools a player can have in their armoury. So many players do great things in training, only to fall apart in matches because they don’t know how to stay calm and controlled when it counts the most.
Here are 9 of the most successful strategies to help calm those pre-performance nerves:
1) Develop your own pre-performance routine
Number 1 for a reason! If used correctly, pre-performance routines can help you with a number of performance-related issues, such as improving attentional focus, reducing distractions and overcoming negative thoughts (Cotterill, 2010). This doesn’t just mean wearing the same “lucky” pants or listening to the same “lucky” album before a game. There is no luck involved in a pre-performance routine. It is important to develop your own routine to prepare you both physically and mentally on game day. What works for your teammate may not necessarily work for you. Routines teach you to act automatically, reducing the amount of thinking you need to do. Too much thinking mixed with pre-match nerves can lead you down a slippery slope of fear and “what if’s”. Pre-performance routines are the perfect way to prevent overthinking and reduce the opportunity for your nerves and anxiety to take over your thoughts.
So, what does a pre-performance routine include? Anything that you can keep REGULAR and REPEATABLE time after time. This could be the time you go to bed the night before a match; watching successful highlights of your previous performances on game day morning; the food you eat pre-match; or the music you listen to on your way to the game. Using some of the strategies outlined in the rest of this article, which have been proven to reduce nerves and anxiety, would be a perfect place to start. It will take time, trial and error to develop your optimum pre-performance routine, but the benefits it can bring to your pre-match mental state and your performance on the pitch could be huge.
2) Control your pre-performance focus
There are 2 common concentration
mistake players make pre-game that can
lead to pre-performance anxiety:
- Focusing too much on the outcome… if you put too much pressure on yourself to score or perform well, this increases your chances of stressing yourself out and underachieving.
Instead… focus on the NOW!
- Focusing too much on the opponent… if you are too focused on the talent or reputation of an opposition, you will send your pre-game nerves through the roof.
Instead… focus on YOU and YOUR job!
3) Do not dwell on the uncontrollables
It is very easy to get hung up on the “uncontrollables” right before performance, for example, the opponent, the crowd or the weather. Focusing on things that you have no control over will make you nervous and undermine your confidence. Ask yourself…
“Do I have control over what I’m feeling nervous over?”
If the answer is no… focus your thoughts on the things you CAN directly control - YOUR preparation, YOUR pre-performance routine you have now perfected, and YOUR performance. Remember you can only control the controllables.
4) Breathing control
When the first sign of nerves hits your body, immediately switch your focus of concentration to your breathing. You don’t have to be an expert in yoga to master the art of controlling your breathing. Taking 10 slow and deep breaths and focusing on the feel and rhythm of your breathing can do the trick. This technique can be far more beneficial with practice, so try and regularly practice every night for 2-3 minutes before you fall asleep. Just a few breaths taken immediately before a game can momentarily calm your nerves and remove stress and anxiety (Ma et al., 2017).
Also known as mental imagery or rehearsal,
visualisation involves imagining yourself being successful. This has been shown to have a number of significant performance benefits, such as improving confidence, motivation, but most significantly here, decreasing stress and reducing performance anxiety (Newmark, 2012).
Close your eyes and imagine the physical movements you would make in a game to be successful. Most importantly, imagine it from YOUR perspective, and make it as realistic to a match as possible. Imagine the crowd noise; the physical battle with the opposition; use all your senses to make the imagined experience as close to a match day as possible.
Incorporating visualisation into your pre-performance routine can have a host of benefits to not only your pre-match nerves, but also your performance on the pitch.
6) Cognitive Restructuring
This isn’t as sci-fi as it sounds! Cognitive restructuring simply means changing our habitual way of thinking. To combat pre-match nerves, it would aim to change any negative thoughts that may be causing or contributing to this performance anxiety. Research has found athletes who viewed anxiety as facilitating as opposed to debilitating had an improved performance (Martinent & Ferrand, 2015).
Cognitive restructuring could also be used to change the way you think about the upcoming game or trial. Thinking about the competition like a training game may put less pressure on you, allowing you to attach less significance to the game and reducing anxiety about your performance.
Recognising negative thoughts when they first enter your mind allows you to stop them before they take hold so you can replace them with positive ones.
7) Distract Yourself
A simple yet effective strategy. It’s obvious during a game you want as little distraction as possible. But beforehand, if it keeps your mind from generating negative thoughts and unnecessary anxiety, go and talk to a teammate, listen to your favourite music, or do something that can take your mind off the upcoming match for a few minutes as you feel those nerves creep in.
8) Recognise and accept that pre-match nerves are normal
Getting nervous before a game isn’t necessarily the problem, after all, it’s a physical reaction to the situation you are in. It’s how we react next that can create the problem. Many players freak out at any sign of pre-game nerves…
“I’m nervous! I shouldn’t be nervous! I won’t perform well if I’m nervous!”
It is easy to misinterpret nerves as fear. The adrenaline rush is normal and is your body’s natural process in response to competition. Recognise it, accept it as a normal physiological response, but don’t focus on it!
9) Accept failure
This final strategy will help the effectiveness
of everything discussed above - accepting that failure exists, and it can be beneficial. The majority of negative thoughts pre-game that initiates anxiety surrounds a bad performance. Accepting that failure is a regular occurrence in a match can lighten this heavy negative thought.
Fear of failure can sabotage success. The desire for perfection can lead to stress and destroy performance.
How do you conquer fear of failure? By not letting it define you! Cristiano Ronaldo has missed 29 penalties in his career (17% of his total penalties). Lionel Messi has missed 30! (22% of his total). They accept that missing a penalty can and will happen, they do not let the fear of missing interfere with their desire to take the next one. By treating failure as normal, you can learn to not be afraid of it, and banish fear from your pre-game nerves.
To summarise, it takes skill and practice to accept rather than fight pre-performance nerves. If you can: (1) accept that nerves are your body’s natural response to competition; (2) embrace the challenges in your upcoming match or trial without the fear of failure; and (3) use some of the strategies above to create your own pre-performance routine… you can enter the pitch giving yourself the best possible opportunity to be in full control of your mental and emotional state, allowing you to be ready to perform to your maximum.
Cotterill, S. (2010). Pre-performance routines in sport: Current understanding and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(2), 132-153. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2010.488269
Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874
Martinent, G., & Ferrand, C. (2015). A Field Study of Discrete Emotions: Athletes’ Cognitive Appraisals During Competition. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 86(1), 51–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2014.975176
Newmark, T. (2012). Cases in visualization for improved athletic performance. Psychiatric Annals, 42(10), 385-387. https://doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20121003-07
Woodman, T., & Hardy, L. (2003). The relative impact of cognitive anxiety and self-confidence upon sport performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 443–457. https://doi.org/10.1080/0264041031000101809