Today’s Topic: Calming Your Nerves
Hi, everybody. Welcome to the Q&A with Coach Rebecca. I’m here to answer your questions about all things performance and mindset. My name is Rebecca Smith. I’m the founder of Complete Performance Coaching, which is a team of fabulous sports psychology experts who specialize in working with kids in teams, individual sports, fear, anxiety, mental blocks. I’ve got other coaches who are fantastically well-prepared to help team sport athletes, also performance anxiety, building confidence, endurance athletes, pro soccer player, elite gymnast, lacrosse expert.
I got all kinds of amazing people at your disposal if you are looking for one-on-one support to help you move your sport career to the next level. We offer that one-on-one support and then we also offer an online training center that’s called the Perform Happy Community, which is where you can find all of my courses on fear, on finding flow, on building confidence, on getting the pre-performance mindset put together and a whole community of athletes and their parents that are working together to make this a really fruitful and productive journey through sport.
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All right. Now to the question of the week, this comes from a gymnast named Abby. She asked a question that a lot of people have been asking recently because it is the upper level gymnast season, well, upper level, optional level gymnast season that’s going on right now so there are a lot nervous gymnasts out there. Abby said,
Q: I just had a competition. I did pretty well. I didn’t fall the whole meet and that is one of my goals for all of my competitions.
I still get really nervous and shake like crazy at competitions. I’m starting to do better about it but I just don’t know how to stop shaking a lot. What are some ways that will help me stop shaking at meets?
I read this post in the community and was like, “Oh, girlfriend, I know.” Because I shook so badly at my first gymnastics meet that I was literally like convulsing up on the beam. I turned bright red, I shook, I wobbled. Then I think I got like a six out of ten, not good, because I was so shaky that I was wobbling the entire time. Abby, I’m going to explain to you why that happens and then give you a whole bunch of ideas on how to get it to stop in the moment and then, the most important thing as far as I see it is how to prepare your mind like you’re already doing through the Overcoming Fear course, but how to prepare your mind to not get so nervous to begin with. That’s always the best way to handle it.
Prevent the Freak Out from Happening
I get a lot of people who are like, “How do I stop freaking out?” Okay, I can help you with that, but a way better solution is to prevent the freak-out from happening because that’s so much easier than trying to calm yourself down when you’re on like four alarm brain wig out. The reason that this happens, the reason that you get physically shaky is called the fight or flight response.
I’m sure you guys are probably familiar with this. If you are in my courses or in the community, you’re definitely familiar with this because I go into detail on what this is but it’s basically the brain’s response to a physical threat to your safety. What is your brain’s primary job? To keep you alive. Hurray. Thank you, brain, for keeping us alive. That’s very important. It’s an important job and we appreciate it, but sometimes it gets in the way when your brain is preventing you from doing a skill that you are prepared enough to do or preventing you from performing in a way that you’re used to performing in practice.
Fight or Flight
Last week, I talked about the way that you get those kids who compete well but don’t practice well. Now, we’re talking about the opposite, the kids who, they train just fine and they go out to compete and then they fully fall apart. What happens is your brain senses a threat to your safety and then, it basically sets off this whole chain reaction of trying to save your life.
Let’s say that you are standing face to face with a tiger, a hungry mean tiger. What would happen is your brain would go fight or flight. You got to either fight this tiger or you got to get the heck out of here.
What would then happen in your body is all the blood runs out of your extremities, runs out of your hands and arms and legs and into your core, so your heart is pounding like crazy. This happens because that way, if the tiger would have cut you, you wouldn’t bleed out because there’s not as much blood being stored in your arms and legs so that’s where your hands get cold and clammy and just, they kind of feel stiff or numb even, so that would not be useful if you’re a professional shooter or archer or anyone who has to do kind of complex motor skills. That would not be helpful. A golfer, anyone who has to use their feet or hands like swimmers, also not useful but your heart is pounding and your body, your brain is thinking it’s doing you a favor.
Bursting with Adrenaline
Then, another thing that happens is that your breathing starts to get really shallow and you start to get this shot of adrenaline, which is the stress hormone that gives you super powers. You hear about those moms who lift the cars off their babies. That’s because of adrenaline. That comes in and it gives you this extra shot of energy that can get you to run out of there and so you’ve got all this energy that your brain has just allocated to your body, which you would think if you’re getting ready to compete is a good thing, right? Hurray. I’m going to be so strong and powerful right now, which is what happens for a lot of strong competitors, is they are like, “It’s go time.”
I never forget talking with a friend of mine who swam for UCLA around the time of the Olympics. She just glanced at swimming on TV and she started to fill with adrenaline because she was such a finely tuned mental machine that she could just look at a swimming pool and turn the adrenaline on, which made her a really fantastic swimmer. That’s what we want. We want to be able to use this for good but then not have it cause drawbacks.
Adjust Your Adrenaline
When you’re shaking, what that means is that that adrenaline has filled your system up but you’re not giving it anywhere to go because you’re not running for your life, you’re not wrestling a tiger. You’re sitting there getting ready to salute the judge on beam, beam where you don’t need as much power but you need more precision and you need more grace, so when that’s happening, you got to figure out what to do with it, right? Okay. There are plenty of other fight or flight mechanisms but we’ll just stick with this one.
Now, you’re shaking. You’re full of adrenaline. Your hands are cold. Your feet are cold. It’s time to compete. What do you do? All right. The first thing I always recommend when you’re in this fight or flight survival mode is go to breath. One thing about your brain is that if you are in fight or flight, the front part of your brain, this part of your brain that only humans have that allows us to reason and think and make informed decisions and go, “Hey, it’s just a balance beam. It’s just a swimming pool. It’s not a tiger. It’s going to be fine,” that part of your brain gets shut off because the survival brain is taking all the mojo, all the energy. You can’t think your way out of being nervous unfortunately.
Parents, Your Athlete Can’t Relax
For you, parents out there who are like, “Relax, honey. It’s not a big deal,” then your kid’s like, “Stop, mom. Don’t talk to me,” the reason that they can’t hear that is because their brain does not compute logic. Run out of here. I need to get out of here. This is not safe. That’s what’s happening in there, so you can’t communicate with your brain through thinking. You have to communicate with it through your body.
Now, if you were standing face-to-face with a tiger, would you take a second and relax your shoulders and feel your feet flat on the floor and take a nice deep out breath, checking for tension, and then breathe deep into your belly. Would you? No. You’d run out of there.
Take the Time to Breathe
If your brain senses that you are calming down, that your body is physically relaxing, which is one of the main things that happens when you take a full out breath, is it cues a relaxation response. It tells your brain it’s okay to relax. By doing that, you start to open up the ability to think again in the front of your brain. The first thing to do is breathe and there’s something called combat breathing or even square breathing where you breathe in for four, you hold for four, out for four, hold for four, and you just keep doing that.
I sometimes also like to breathe in for four, hold for four, and then out for eight because it’s that outbreath, that full outbreath where you’re just like every last bit of air comes out and goes away, that is the one that cues your brain that everything’s okay. Number one, breathe. When you start to shake, breathe because that’s going to stop the flow of adrenaline to begin with, so you actually kind of want to start breathing before you get too stressed out.
Then, another thing you can do is get excited because just the act of saying, “I’m excited,” instead of, “I’m terrified,” if you’re going up to your friends before you compete and go, “Oh, my gosh. We’re going to beam. I’m so nervous. I hope I don’t start shaking,” that just reinforces your nerves. Instead, if you’re walking over to beam going, “Hey, I’m pretty excited. I had a good week of practice. I’m going to go give this a shot,” even though you’re like, “Ah,” in your brain, if you can try to shift it to excitement.
That’s a lot easier to do than going from 10 out of 10 energy trying to drop it down to a calm four. That is a big task in a small period of time and it’s a lot easier for you to take eight out of 10 nerves and turn it into eight out of 10 excitement. It’s an easier parallel to walk than trying to calm yourself down when you’re already up at 10.
Do Something Physical to Distract Yourself
This is a big one. If you are physically shaking and you have all this adrenaline and you have all this energy and you don’t need it at all, jump around. Dance around. Take a walk. Shake it out. Dance. A lot of swimmers slap their lags and slap their arms and kind of just shake it out. If you can do that, jump up and down, do something physical to get some of that extra energy out of your body so that it doesn’t have to off-gas through shaking. Jump. Do drills. Cheer your teammates on like, “Woo.”
Scream. Actually, screaming is another thing. If you could be convenient place for you to scream at the top of your lungs but if you can be like, “Go, Jenny. You got this,” that can actually help the shaking really drop down because you’re letting some energy out. If you have time to jog over to the drinking fountain and do some jumping jacks and jog back, that could be really helpful.
Obviously, you’re going to have to know yourself, you don’t want to then get up on beam and be winded and have zero energy, so you have to be smart about it but if you have too much energy, you got to get some of it out as quickly as you can.
How Can you Access Your Brain Again?
Another thing to do, generally, when you’re nervous whether you’re shaking or not, is try to figure out how to get your brain to open back up. This is a way that parents and coaches can get involved. One thing I typically recommend is that if you see your athlete kind of like tensing up and looking like, “Uh-oh, this kid’s nervous,” ask them. On a scale of one to 10, how nervous are you right now? Ten would be I’m as nervous as I could possibly be and one is not a care in the world. You just ask them what number. Typically, because they’re thinking brain is tied up and not really working well, they’re going to have trouble coming up with a number and that’s okay. They might be like, “I don’t know, mom. I can’t think of that.”
You just go, “Try to think of a number. One to 10, how stressed are you? How nervous are you?” Then, they’ll be like, “I don’t know. I’m like a nine or maybe I’m an eight or yeah, I’m like a … I don’t know, seven.” You’ll notice, you’ll kind of see as that part of their brain is forced to work, it actually calms the back of their brain down that’s doing all this crazy survival fight or flight. That’s one good thing to do on the way there or right before an event or any coaches that you can be like, “What’s your nervous number? “I’m at a six.”
How Nervous are you on a Scale of 1 to 10?
Okay. Another great thing is to know, you kind of keep track of your nervous number and go, “I’m at a six right now and I feel horrible,” and then you go compete and you do a good job, then you can learn. I can actually compete really well at seven out of 10 nervous or eight out of 10 nervous because sometimes, for some of us, we’re just wired a little tight and we get really nervous and then we do well anyway. Anytime I get ready to speak in front of a huge crowd, I get super nervous and I literally teach this for a living, how to handle nerves, and I know I can be seven out of 10 nervous and do a great job. I just trust it and I’m like, “I don’t like this feeling.”
We get nervous, so it’s good to know. I can function at five out of 10 or seven or nine and still be okay even though it’s not fun necessarily but then you have that like, “Oh, my gosh. I did it. I did great. That feels amazing.”
Visualization and Imagery
The sports psychology textbooks like to call it imagery because it’s more about you pulling in all of your senses than just the visual sense that’s implied to visualization but really, when I mention it, I mean the same thing where you’re creating an image in your mind of you doing well.
The reason why this can also help is because your visual cortex, and I guess I’m giving you all these brain science today but the part of your brain that sees images is a different one from the survival game and it’s different from the rational brain. This is another way that you can kind of open up your brain by seeing images of you doing well.
Maybe when you’re jogging over to the drinking fountain, you’re kind of imagining yourself doing well. You’re shaking it out. You’re cheering on your teammates. You’re breathing. That’s pretty much kind of the best general strategy that you can have when you’re in that shaky place. Then, also trust. You know what, I might shake and I might be okay. I might be shaking but I can still do a solid routine.
Don’t Dread Your Nerves
Okay, that’s the in the moment. A final thing that I talk about, nerves in general. You don’t want to dread it. You don’t want to be like, “Oh, no. The nerves are hitting. This is bad,” because that has been proven to tank your performance if you assume that nerves are bad versus if you assume that nerves are part of the deal and you know you can do okay anyway.
Another way to show your nerves that you’re not afraid of them and therefore not make it worse is to go, “Huh, where am I feeling this nervous energy in my body?” which is kind of an advanced skill for little kids but you can get used to it and go, “I am feeling nervous. What does that feel like?” For me, I’m pointing at my chest because it’s always in my chest for me.
I stop at one point to think, “All right, I’m feeling very anxious. Where is this?” I was like, “Okay, it’s right here in my chest. What color is it?” I saw, basically it was like a pink lava lamp with like purple water and pink blobs that were kind of going up and down all through my chest. Instead of being like, “Oh, no. This is so bad that I’m so nervous,” I was just like, “Oh, hey, lava lamp. Okay. Yeah, it’s kind of purple. It’s kind of pink. There it is. It’s in my chest.”
Deal with Your Emotions
As I did that, it shrunk and it kind of dropped intensity and then it went away. In a way, it’s like dealing with emotions in general. If you’re dealing with emotions and you push them down and you push them down and you’re like, “I don’t have time to be stressed. I don’t have time to be nervous. I don’t have time to be sad,” they won’t leave until you process them so then they pop up with these inopportune moments so if you just take a second and go, “Hey, anxiety. There you are.” Then, it’s like, “Okay. Glad I got your attention. Everything cool? Okay, thanks. See you.” Then, it’s done.
Really, it’s brain trying to go, “Pay attention to this. This could be very dangerous,” then you’re like, “All right. I’m paying attention. I think we’re going to be okay.” Then, brain’s like, “Cool. Just checking.” Then, you’re good.
Where’s Your Mindset At?
Those are all the in the moment things but the most important thing you can do is check your mindset going forward. I worked with one of my favorite people of all time, is a young figure skater who came to me because she was phenomenally talented, and I hate to use the word talent because it’s hard work.
This girl was a fabulous figure skater who fell apart under pressure. It was because she deeply believed that if she made a mistake, she was letting people down, that her parents have invested a lot of money in it, her coaches had invested a lot of time in it and she went to a competition and she made as much as a little mistake, she was letting them down.
We were able to kind of dissect that belief and go, “Oh, girlfriend, they love you. You can fall 100 times in one program and they will not stop loving you. I guarantee. I bet you could ask them but they would agree and they did. She actually was like, “If I fall 100 times in one program, will you still love me?” Her parents were like, “Yes, we will never stop loving you. Of course.”
Failure is OK
They made a plan of going to ice cream after every competition no matter what and we legalized failure. We’re like, “You are allowed to make mistakes. You’re allowed to fail. It’s totally allowed and nobody’s going to be disappointed. They’re going to know that you tried your best and then we’re just going to go onto the next competition and try to get a little bit better.
Then, she decided that instead of looking at competitions like, “This is my one chance to prove myself and not let people down and not disappoint people,” she changed it to, “These are just check-ins. I go. I compete, I check in and see how I’m doing. I see where I need to improve for next time and I go back to a practice and I work on it. It’s just another program.
It’s just another program. I’m going to do a program on Wednesday. I’m going to do one on Thursday. I’m going to do one on Friday. Friday happens to be a competition but it’s just another program. Then, we do it on Monday. Then, we do it on Tuesday,” and she changed her whole perspective on it.
Your Nerves Won’t Disappear
I mean, she still gets a little nervous but nothing like before. She just finished fourth in national and I’m so proud of her. After just being able to talk with her family and kind of like realize that all this disappointment she was afraid of was not real and if it was, if mom was putting pressure on her, she then knew like, “Oh, I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry. Of course, we love you no matter what.”
They got a good conversation about it that changed the perspective. Then, she didn’t have to get to the point where she had to fend off the panic but she did often do the deep breathing, kind of checking about her number. Then, after six or seven competitions, she didn’t even need to do it. She was just ready to go and she got there.
We all get nervous so there’s lots of good stuff to talk about here. If you want more one-on-one support, you can go here and get yourself a free consultation with me or any of the fabulous Complete Performance coaches or you can check out performhappy.com and get yourself on the waiting list for all the amazing online goodness that will be released from here forward. All right. You guys, I’ll see you next week. Thanks for hanging out.