Preparing Your Nerves for a Big Competition | Q&A with Coach Diana

Today’s Topic: Preparing Your Nerves for a Big Competition


Hi, everyone.  This is Coach Diana from Complete Performance Coaching.  Today I am going to talk to you about a question that’s come up a few times recently.

Q: How should my athlete go about preparing their nerves for a big competition?



When there’s a big competition looming, there’s automatically more pressure that athletes put on themselves, but parents can put even more pressure without knowing it, and so can coaches.

I want to talk about a few things that parents, coaches, and athletes can do to try to prepare for the big competition.

Preparing for the Competition

First of all, with gymnastics, for instance, I’ve had a couple parents ask about big invitationals where the competition itself might not mean much in terms of making it to regionals or going somewhere further, but it’s a big arena.  It’s in a different state.  There’s going to be a lot more people there.  Their little girl is super nervous about it.

It might be knowing that at state meet or at regionals you get how well you do depends or determines whether or not you make it to the next level regionals or whatever.  It’s not just gymnastics.  Every sport has this.  It might be a big game.  It could in other sports, a high school championship, or it might be a game where there are recruits.  How well you perform depends on whether or not you get a scholarship or get recruited to a school.  All of these things put added pressure on you.

What can you do?

Parents, one of the biggest things that I think is important is you want to try to treat it just like any other competition.

Treat it Like Any Old Competition

Think of the rituals you do.  For instance, when I was a gymnast, my mom used to give me flowers before every gymnastics meet.  I knew I was going to wake up and have a rose when I woke up the morning of my competition.  If you do something like that, you want to do the exact same thing for the big invitational, state meet, or the regionals, whatever it is.

If you go out to dinner, if you do any kind of celebratory thing prior to, keep it exactly the same. If you do anything afterward, keep that the same too so they know, no matter how they do, everything is going to be the same.

If you make it bigger, you give them something else or do something different, then without knowing it, even though your intentions are good, you’re actually increasing the pressure.  If you do this, they know that this is a bigger deal to you.  So again, try to keep everything the same.  You want to try to keep them or help them think of it as the same as well.

Show Them the Playing Ground Beforehand

Take your child to the competition site whether that’s a field or an arena, whatever.  Take them there first.  Maybe, if you’re going out of town, drive by and stop into the arena the day that you get into town or the day before their competition.  If at all possible, try to get them to see the arena first.  By doing this, they have the ‘starstruckness’ out of them, and they can also use that to help them prepare for their competition the next day or later that day.  Really try to do that.

Hopefully, your child is already visualizing.  If they see the arena, then they can actually visualize with the exact atmosphere and environment that they’re going to be in while they’re competing.  This not only helps them prepare, but it also helps build their confidence.  In some sports, you have the luxury of seeing game tapes prior to competition.  Gymnastics is a little different.  We don’t have that available to us.  The best next thing is to at least see the competition site.

Coaches, Listen Up

Coaches are a little bit different.  You have a little bit of a fine line to walk because you need to make sure your athletes are prepared for the magnitude of the competition coming up.  You want them mentally ready for that and knowing what to expect.  Again, you don’t want to add pressure by talking about how big or how important this one competition is.

Prepare Your Athletes, Both Mentally and Physically

To give you a little personal story, when my nephew was about seven years old, he was competing in TaeKwonDo.  He was pretty talented.  He did very well at all of his competitions.  He always walked away either winning or getting silver or bronze at a couple of the events that he competed in.  I think he was seven when he made nationals.

I have to say, his coaches did not prepare him very well for what to expect at nationals.  They did tell him there was going to be a lot more people there.  I think they tried to get him to realize that he wasn’t going to win, but as a seven-year-old, what that translated into, was, “Okay, I might not walk away with the gold, but I’ll probably still place.”

What Happens When You’re Not Prepared?

He had that set in his mind.  When he got there, it was so big and there were so many things going on.  His coach wasn’t even with him for some of the times when he was ready to compete. I’ll never forget one of his actual events.  His coach was away helping a teammate.  My nephew, he can’t hear out of one ear.  It was such a disaster.

The poor kid had to go, but he wasn’t really ready.  Nobody was there to even tell him, “Good job. Relax.  Take a breath.”  He also wasn’t prepared for not doing well, not placing.  He didn’t make the cut to go to the final round.  He was devastated.  I honestly think that that could have been avoided if they had prepared him better for what the magnitude of a national competition was going to look like.

Keep Your Athlete Informed

Try not to make that mistake.  Make sure that athletes know what is actually going to take place, how it’s going to run, what a realistic picture of the entire competition is so that you aren’t frustrated with how you did.  The fact that you made it to nationals or made it to his big competition is a huge accomplishment.

We need to praise that and make sure that they understand that so that they’re not so disappointed if they don’t win or they don’t place as high as they normally do at a smaller competition.

The other thing that coaches can do is, I don’t know if any of you have ever seen the movie Hoosiers, but the coach in Hoosiers does this.  If you haven’t seen the movie, let me give you a little bit of background.


The move is about a small high school team, a basketball team.  This high school team makes it to the state championships.  They travel.  They’re in a small town and travel to a big city.  They’re going to be competing in this big arena.  The coach takes the team before they go to practice, before they change clothes, they go out into the court, they walk onto the court.

The coach is really smart.

He brings a tape measure with them.  He has his players help him measure from the top of the basketball hoop to the floor.  They measure it.  They measure the distance from the free throw line to the basket.  He does this to show them that it’s actually the exact same measurement as their homeschool.

Show them Hard Proof

Way back in their small town, everything is exactly the same.  The equipment didn’t get bigger.  It didn’t get farther away.  I think that that’s another thing that coaches can do to really help their athletes.  Even if it’s something as silly as taking a measuring tape with you and saying, “You know what, the balance beam didn’t get any narrower with this meet.  It’s the exact same.” Or “The baseball field didn’t get bigger.  You still have the same amount of room from home plate to first base, et cetera.”

Giving them an idea that, “You know what, it’s exact same equipment.  It’s the same setup.  The only difference is, how many people are here or the fact that this is a regional competition versus just a regular meet.”  Well, that will also help athletes.

For the athlete, I think one of the biggest things is it’s okay to have emotions.  It’s okay to get nervous and feel scared.  I think it’s important to really allow yourself some time to be nervous, be scared but then you have to allow yourself to have that emotion and then work beyond it. Hopefully, you’re visualizing. That’s one of the best tools that we have.

Visualize and Feel

If you’re visualizing regularly, that will help you get prepared mentally, anyway, and then when you go to see the competition site, then you can add in that arena and that noise that you might hear into your visualizations to help you prepare.  The other thing is, once you allow yourself to feel the emotion, then you need to stop that and focus on what it is you need to do.  Because remember, in the competition, all you have to worry about is your routine, your part in that athletic event.

I think it’s really important to just stay focused on what you need to do to be successful and remember that you just take one event at a time.  That’s all you can do.  You keep going like that and don’t let the magnitude of the meet overwhelm you.  Allow yourself to have these feelings initially and then work through them.

Positive Self-Talk

I think that, certainly, visualization is one of those things.  Positive self-talk is another thing that really helps you.  If you get really super nervous, I would say it’s really helpful to journal.  Get those feelings out of you so that you’re not holding them in, and then that allows you to then have space to really focus on what you need to do to be successful in your competition.  All big competitions do bring another level of pressure to us.  As best we can, we want to try to keep that intact and focus on the things that we know to do every day in every competition to make us successful.

Those are my tips for trying to handle the pressures of a big competition.  Please feel free to ask any questions.  You can send me a message via email and I will try to address those as well.

Thanks so much and have a great night.

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