Taking Control of Nerves at Competition
As an athlete I often struggled with anxiety and nerves leading into competitions. Whether it was National Championships or the Commonwealth Games, I would inevitably feel that all too familiar tightness in my chest and uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach that told me that competition was just around the corner. These feelings only heightened as the event drew closer, as I struggled to concentrate on anything other than gymnastics, my school or uni work would go out of the window and I would become incredibly hard on myself if training was anything less than perfect.
As gymnasts we train as many hours as a full time job, all year round and when it finally comes to competing sometimes nerves can get the better of us, overriding all of the hard work we have put in throughout the year. This can lead to a disappointing results and a lot of frustration. Over the years my nerves & anxiety around competition never really subsided or lessened however I did get better at controlling them and developed a couple of strategies to cope with them when they did arise. So here are a handful of tips and tricks that I used leading up to some of the biggest moments of my gymnastics career!
I only discovered Mindfulness in the later years of my gymnastics career. Smiling Mind is a meditation app that is a great tool to help you relax and focus before a competition. There are specific sport exercises that help guide you through relaxation mindfulness as an athlete as well exercises to help you relax before heading to bed. I used this app religiously every night in the lead up to the Olympic Games, checking in with my body and letting go of the day’s tension and stress to ensure I gave myself the best chance of having a good nights sleep.
Plan your Competition Day
Being the type A planner I am, understanding what a competition day will look like was a vital step for me to feel prepared. Talking to your coach about the competition day, knowing the schedule, where is the venue, is there any other information that I need to know about the competition, do I have everything I need? Having all of these questions answered can help you feel more prepared and in control when competition day rolls around.
Focus on the Process
It is easy to get distracted by scores, looming team selections or worry about what others think of you. This was a big problem for me at competition and often impacted my routines as I lost focus and sight of what I was really there to do – gymnastics! Turn your focus inwards and away from things that aren’t in your control. Instead of focusing on the end goal, slow down and try to work through your routines step by step, putting one foot in front of the other.
Slow down and trust your training
You have been in the gym for hours and hours practicing these skills and routines, so trust your abilities. Think about times when you nailed every throw in your routine, hit those apparatus difficulties, and hit that ring pivot- you’ve done it in training, so you can do it in competition!
Finding your Reset Button
Think of changing apparatus as new opportunity to perform. As gymnasts we perform not one but four routines! Over the years one of the most commonly asked questions I get from younger athletes is how to move on after a bad routine. My advice is always to try and find your own personal rest button that you can push between routines. My reset button was changing my leotards or picking up the next apparatus. As I took off one leotard, I would be moving away from all of my thoughts and feelings about what just happened on the floor in that leotard. So when I picked up the next leotard it is like beginning the competition again - completely fresh. Your tool might be to sit down and listen to some music for a couple of minutes before standing up and warming up again, or perhaps writing down your corrections in a training diary so it’s out of your head and on paper before moving onto the next routine. It can be incredibly challenging to move on from a less than perfect performance but creating and tapping that reset button when you need to can help you move on from any routine.
Expect and Welcome Nerves
Instead of letting your nerves overwhelm you, take the opportunity to switch your mindset. I knew that although my nervous energy was incredibly uncomfortable I needed them to perform at my best so instead of dreading the feeling, I would try to embrace the nerves and welcome them with open arms. I can’t deny that my first instinct is deny their presence, ignore them, but by letting myself acknowledged those uncomfortable feelings it allowed me to take control of them. “Hello old friend, to be honest told I’m glad you’re here. I need you to help me perform at my best today – this competition is kind of big deal and I would like to kick ass today!”
Before going onto the floor, it’s important to remember to breathe! Apart from being a vital bodily function, it can be very useful when it comes to calming nerves and slowing your heart rate before stepping out in to the arena. Take control of all of that nervous energy and place your hand onto your stomach and focus on the movement of your hand going up and down.
Remember Why You are Here
When you are standing behind the curtain waiting for your name to be called onto the floor, feeling those nerves creeping into your mind… remember why you’re standing there. You began gymnastics for the adrenaline that rushes through your body as you catch a new throw for the first time. You started this sport for the feeling of utter excitement that overwhelms you as you hit your finish pose after a clean routine. You chose gymnastics to set goals, and feel pride after you accomplish them with hard work and determination. Think about why you’re standing on the competition floor in front of your coaches, family and friends, and enjoy the moment!