What to do About Pre-Performance Anxiety | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Pre-Performance Anxiety and What You Can Do About It

About Me

I’m Rebecca Smith, a high-performance coach, and also the director and founder of Complete Performance Coaching as well as the Perform Happy community: the complete online mental toughness training center.

I help kids age 8 through 18 raise their mental game so that their physical game can shine. This is done through either one on one coaching, FaceTime or Skype and lastly through the online mental toughness training center. That’s where I have various courses, self-study, parent courses and all kinds of good stuff that you can plug into your busy life as an athlete and a sport family.

I’m going dig into today’s question. Here’s a question from Cindy,


Q: “My son is 13 years old, he’s very stubborn and gets nervous, melts down and won’t get out of the car. He throws up before races and doesn’t eat anything because he doesn’t want to feel full. I’ve tried to explain, ‘Just do your best.’ I have threatened him, bribed him and tried asking what’s wrong. I get, ‘I’m tired, I don’t feel well. Help.’ He also doesn’t like to swim if other swimmers that he’s friendly with are not swimming.”



This is obviously about pre-performance nerves. Some of the best swimmers I’ve ever worked with, we’re talking Olympic trials and D1 athletes, had a history of throwing up in the bushes before a race. This is not uncommon, and it usually happens when the kids care. I’m going to give you three points that will help you figure out at least something to get him under control and having a little bit more fun, so that ideally he can reach his goals.

  1. You Need to Have a Plan
  2. You Need to Prime Yourself for the Flow Experience
  3. Lastly, you Need to Get Excited

I’m going to give you a little case study of one of my athletes, who I’m going call Lauren, I would never user an actual athlete’s name or situation, so I’ve changed things up a little bit. I’m going to tell you about Lauren because she made huge strides toward her performance anxiety once we started working together.


Case Study: A Story About Performance Anxiety

She was 13, had anxiety at meets, was feeling pressured and was depressed. Lauren would have these phenomenal practices and was pretty much the hardest worker on her team during practice. Then she would bomb at meets. She would get so nervous where she just could not pull it together. She had all of these fears, like, “Is my suit going to rip? Am I going to drop time, or am I going to go so slow?” There were these worst-case scenarios flying through her head. It made it so that she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t swim well and was not enjoying her sport anymore.

Here’s what I did with her: we started with this concept of having a plan. If you’re nervous, a lot of the time that fear happens because your brain doesn’t know what to expect. If you know that, “Okay, this is what could happen, and this is what I’ll do. This could also happen, and this is what I’ll do,”  then you’re in business. Also, it’s way better to be proactive about a plan than reactive. You don’t want to be like, “Oh no, I’m freaking out. What do I do?” Instead you go, “How do I prevent myself from freaking out by having a plan to keep myself steady, and calm, and confident on the day of a race?”

We went back through Lauren’s old races, and we’ve said:

  • When were you the most nervous? Let’s talk about that.
  • What was going on?
  • What led to that?
  • Let’s go through some of the clues we can find about why that happens for you?
  • Let’s talk about some races where you did really well.
  • Is it possible for you to do really well when you’re incredibly stressed out?


Formulating a Plan

For her, the feeling of stress and performing well did not go together. Some kids freak out and then get the best time of their life, every time. For them we just go, “Great, so nerves are just part of your go-time experience.” That’s something you have to look at, is looking back at past experiences, past positives, past negatives. What can you learn? What are the patterns that you want to base your strategy based on, okay?

Then we came with a plan for Lauren on what she was going to do before each race, before the meet in general, and how to reset in between races. That’s another time where people get sideways. If you have a bad race, a lot of people think, “Well I had a bad race, so that means it’s a bad meet.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you know exactly what to do with a success or with a failure, then you can bounce back quickly. That’s what I do: we come up with a way to let it go right away, and then get back on track.


Here’s Where the Food Thing Comes In…

When you’re stressed your brain is on high alert, your brain is saying, “There’s a threat. This is not safe,” when really, it’s completely 100% safe. You’re not going to drown and nothing’s on fire, but your heart and your brain feel like there’s a big threat. What happens in your body if you were to chased by a tiger and there was a legitimate threat to your life? Your brain would tell your stomach to evacuate, you know, get everything out that we don’t need. Digestion stops, and all we need to do is get the heck out of here.

You feel like you’re going to throw up, sometimes you actually do throw up, you feel like you’re going to pee your pants. I was a gymnast, whenever I’d step up to go on the beam I’d like immediately have to go potty. Potty – I have a two-year-old. It’s all part of the brain’s ‘how I deal with fear’ system. Knowing that, you can look at it and go, “Okay, I feel a little bit nauseous, that just means I’m a little bit nervous.” We’ll talk about what to do with that in a minute here.


Bring Your Brain into the Equation

When you are in fight or flight, the caveman part of your brain is on high alert, which means your reasoning is out of town. You can’t think your way out of it, but if you can just go, “Okay, on a scale of one to 10, how nervous am I?” And then your brain’s going to be like, “I don’t know, ahhh!” But you keep thinking, “Okay, on a scale of one to 10, how nervous am I?” And then you go, “10, 10, 10! Okay well, no, actually nine. Well, maybe I’m only at a seven.”

Just that process will actually open up a part of your brain that can tell the rest of your brain, “Hey buddy, there is no tiger, it’s okay.” That’s one thing you can do.


Remember to Breathe

Breathing; stopping, relaxing your shoulder, putting your feet flat on the floor. Just breathe. That is one of the quickest things you can do. There are some specific ways to breathe for relaxation, but really, just the fact that you’re getting out of the “Ahhh!” in your head and trying to come into your body is another way to get your brain to feel okay with the situation.

These are all of the things that you want to have preplanned. Tell yourself, “I know that this gets me nervous, so I don’t want to think about that, and if I do then I’ll breathe,” or, “This is part of what I do before each race.” It’s different for everybody.

I actually have a pre-race mental strategy planner that you can download for free that goes into more of the questions that you want to ask yourself, and some suggestions of what to put in there. You can download that for free at here, and you can just go ahead and grab that, and that can get you started.


What Makes Your Body Feel Good?

Okay, so back to food. Once you’ve got your eating sorted out, or the fact that you’re going to feel nauseous, once you’ve accepted that, that’s one thing. Then, the best thing to do in your plan is to figure out what makes your body feel good. Then you have to trust that you can eat that and you can still perform well even if you’re a little nervous about it.

I have a friend who is a holistic nutrition expert, and she recommends that before competition you should consume less fat and fiber than other meals. Or other times, because then you can kinda speed up digestion and avoid feeling full. So less fiber and less fat is going to help you feel better. The focus should be on lean protein, and it really should be foods that your athlete knows their body will be okay with.

Look back to when you did perform well, what did you eat? When did you perform horribly and feel too full, what did you eat then? Figure out the clues, what should we be eating, and then just have that be the plan.


  • I wake up at this time, I eat this. Even if I feel nauseous, I eat it, because I need to fuel my body.
  • Then I drink my water, and then I get in the car, and then I think about this,” and you get a whole plan lined out. It’s so that there’s no, “Should I or shouldn’t I eat this? No, it’s just what I do, I eat this.”
  • And then you don’t have to be running around in fear, trying to decide what to do on that day, you just know, “This is the next thing on my checklist. This is the next thing on my checklist.” And that itself can take the nerves down majorly.


Priming for Flow

The next thing I did with Lauren is prime her for flow. Flow is that experience, you hear me talk about it all the time, where you click in and everything just flows. All of your training takes over, you don’t have to struggle, and you’re working harder than you’ve ever have. Usually this comes up in those crazy sets, that you’re like, “What is my coach thinking? There’s no way we could do that.” That’s when you find flow, when you’re maximizing, you know, you’re pushing yourself to the absolute limit.

What we do, and this is actually in the Perform Happy community, is have a whole 15 session course on how to basically wire your brain to have more flow experiences, but the number one thing that you guys can do, I’m going to give you a little bit of it, is you can get present and in your body. Fear is always about the future. Fear is in the future. If you’re in right now, everything’s okay. Unless you’re being chased by a tiger, then that’s different!


Being in the Moment

But in this moment, no matter where you are, if you’re sitting at home, or if you’re at a meet, you’re okay. It’s the fear of what’s going to happen, what’s going to go wrong, that makes everything feel so scary. Train yourself to be in the moment: that means you’re not thinking about what happened last time, what went wrong before, what could fail again, “Last week wasn’t good, oh my gosh, my taper was off.” Any of that stuff, that’s not in the present either. You let go of the past, you let go of the future, and you just find yourself in the moment.


Focusing on One Thing

That’s what I had her do. The way that Lauren started to do this was that we had her just decide. Your warmup, whatever that is, 400, or 600, or a 1,000, you are going to focus on one thing. Sometimes it’d be the early catch, sometimes it would be the kick, sometimes it was her push off, or her turns, and she would just laser focus on that one thing. Sometimes it was the bubbles coming out of her nose. It really doesn’t matter what you pick, as long as you focus only on the bubbles, and then the second that your mind wanders you pull it back to the bubbles. And then your mind wanders, you pull it back to the bubbles.

This is meditation, basically. I was teaching her how to meditate in the pool. And any of you who are swimmers have such an opportunity to be training your brain while you’re doing the easy stuff. While you’re just getting your body and mind warmed up for being present. Choose something that just for your warmup you are going to completely focus on, and then, of course, your mind is going to wander, because you’re human, and then you pull it back. Bubbles, just the bubbles, just the bubbles.


Being in the Moment

Then she actually started to do this throughout her entire practice. When you’re doing this for two, three hours a day, oh my gosh, it makes huge differences. But it’s hard, so a lot of people would be like, “No thanks, that’s too much. Too much brain necessary, I just want to check out, I just want to hang out with my friends.” If you can start adding it in it will help you to be more present. It will actually help you have less anxiety when you go to compete, because you’re not going to be so far out in the future, or in the past, you’re going to be able to be in the moment, where everything is okay.


Addressing the Negativity

Okay, so that’s one of the things that gets you in the flow. We also, when I worked with her, we addressed her negative thinking, we figured out what was keeping her down, what was eating away at her confidence, and we made some new thoughts to replace those. I always have athletes do something in their environment at a meet so they’ll remember. ‘Cause yeah, I can give you techniques all day long, but if you get there and you freak out, and you don’t remember what to do, it doesn’t matter.

My favorite thing that she did was she painted her toenails gold, and so every time she got in the blocks and she saw her toenails she was like, “Oh yeah, I’m awesome.” And then she swam. That was it, that was what she needed, was just a little like, “Oh yeah, I don’t have to get into the ‘What ifs?'”


Sort Out Your “What-Ifs’

Meanwhile, she had a plan for if any of the “What ifs?” happened. You know, if her suit ripped, she’s got an extra one in her bag. If her goggles fill up, she knows to count strokes. She’s got a contingency plan for any possible thing that could go wrong, and she knows what she’s going to do if she fails. And this is probably the most important thing.

You know, if failure is not the worst-case scenario, if failure is just a stepping stone on the way to success, you don’t have to fear it. We went through one of her bad performances, and we basically went, “Okay, so what can you learn from it?” And she’s like, “Well, my dives. I need to work on my dives.” So she’s put a bunch of effort into working on her dives, the next meet her dives were phenomenal and she dropped time.


Failing Can Make You Better

It takes failing to get the idea of what you really need to put your effort into, to improve. Once that clicked for her, like, “Oh, I can have a bad race and have that be part of my overall big picture swimming career, and actually improve, then that’s going to be great.” Okay? So you have to reflect, you have to look back on, “How did that meet go? What did I learn? What went well?” Most importantly, you know, looking back at the good, the bad, and then the lessons learned. And I know you hear me say that all the time.


Turn Nervousness Into Excitement

Okay, then finally, number three, I want you to get excited instead of afraid. When people say, “Calm down,” when you’re nervous, that doesn’t help, because your brain is firing, and you have all this energy and all this adrenaline. What we want to do is convert that highly activated state of nervousness to an activated state of excitement, so that you can be pumped. You need that energy. That adrenaline is what’s going to get you your personal best.


It’s Proven to Improve Performance

There’s a study done that showed three different groups doing stressful things. I think it was karaoke, a math test, and something else. It then had one of the groups go into that scary task and just dwell on the fact that they were nervous.

One group was supposed to just be neutral, you know, like think about what you had for lunch. And then one group was supposed to think, “I’m excited.” Think about how excited you are to do this karaoke, or to take this math test. Then  when they got the results back, the kids who did the excitement were significantly better

Thinking about your nerves will actually make you swim worse. Thinking about being excited will make you swim better. I know it sounds simple, but if you can just shift that, to like, “Ooh, my heart’s pounding, this is like when I go up a roller coaster, and I love roller coasters. Here we go, I can’t wait.” Even if you’re kinda lying to yourself a little bit, you’re faking it till you make it, go for it, you know? This stuff works.



So those are your three things – you are going to have a plan, prime yourself for flow, and get excited. If you want help finding flow you can go over to PerformHappy.com and check out our community. If you want to have some help coming up with your pre-race mental strategy, go to CompletePerformanceCoaching.com/Race, and download that free race strategy planner.

I will be back here again next week, answering questions. If you have any questions for me in the meantime, reach out to me at Rebecca@PerformHappy.com. I’ll see you next week. Thanks for being here.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.