Three Ways to Control the “Butterflies” | Q&A with Coach Taryn

Today’s Topic: Three Ways to Control the “Butterflies”

Hello everyone.  I’m Coach Taryn and I’m so excited to be coming on for my first Facebook live as one of the newest coaches on the Complete Performance Coaching team.  My background is in figure skating, gymnastics, and dance.  I probably do most of my work with figure skaters and I’m excited to bring that area of expertise to the community.

A little bit of where I’m going with my Facebook live today is specific to skating, however everything that I talk about is applicable to athletes in all sports.

I really want to address a question that I get asked a lot in my work from athletes, coaches, and parents.

Q: How do I control the pre-competition nerves or the nerves that I might experience when I’m trying a new skill, or being in an evaluative situation where somebody is watching?


A lot of the time in those situations, it’s normal to experience feelings of nerves, feelings of anxiety.  A lot of the time, we hear that being expressed as, “I have butterflies in my tummy.”

I know nerves and anxiety can express themselves in a lot of different ways.  For a lot of athletes, it comes in the form of butterflies.  I want to talk about three ways to control the butterflies when they appear.

I’ll start with some examples related to figure skating, but everything I say today is going to be applicable to all sports, whether that be figure skating, gymnastics, tennis, soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball, skiing – any of those sports.

Responding to Stress

What we know is that in an anxiety-provoking or a stressful situation, you’re going to experience nerves.  You’re going to experience that feeling of butterflies in your tummy. My goal is to get those butterflies to fly in formation, because butterflies and that feeling in your stomach is a natural response to stress.

Butterflies Serve a Purpose

You’re never going to completely be able to get rid of them, and I wouldn’t want any athletes to get completely rid of them because they serve a purpose.  They tell you that what you’re doing is important to you and that it matters.

My goal is to give athletes the ability to focus on the performance that they’re about to do or focus on the skill that they’re about to do, rather than on the butterflies.  Butterflies can be a big source of distraction and they might be an impetus.  They might be a reason for popping, bailing, or that stage fright type of feeling that some athletes or performers might get.

Controlling the Butterflies

So the goal is not to get rid of those butterflies.  You don’t want to make them completely go away, but to know that they’re going to be there and know that that’s ok.  You can use certain strategies to help those butterflies fly in a nice, neat formation so that they don’t distract from the performance or the skill that’s happening.

Three Ways to Control the Butterflies

The three things that I talk to athletes about are breathing, body awareness, and focus. I’m going to go through each of those things and talk a little bit about how I might address those with an athlete.  I’ll also give you some tips and tricks that you can use or you might be able to suggest to your athlete that they try out.

1. Breathing

The first one is breathing.  I think this is something that we often underestimate in sport – how powerful breathing can be as a strategy.  The body has its own way of responding to stress.  That stress might be because you’re about to perform in front of a large audience. It might be because you’re trying a new skill that’s foreign or new and maybe a little bit scary.  In that moment, your body responds in a certain way.  Maybe your heart rate increases.  It might be your stomach starts to feel those butterflies or gets a little bit nauseous.  You might feel sick to your stomach.  It could also be your breathing speeds up or your muscles getting tense.

What breathing does is it calms down those systems in your body so that they go back to a normal state of calm.  Therefore, you’re able to perform those skills or go out and perform many skills in a routine more effectively.

It’s really great because normally, on a daily basis, we don’t have to think about breathing.  This lets us focus on all the other things we have to do and our body just breathes for us.

Controlling Your Breathing

What’s really cool is that we actually have the power to slow our breathing down or to change it if it gets out of sync.  The best way to do this is I talk to athletes about belly breathing.  Most of the time when we get nervous, we breathe up in our chest, really shallow and quick.

Slowing Things Down

What I encourage athletes to do is slow their breathing down.  They’re taking a nice, deep inhale through their nose, a nice, deep exhale out of their mouth, and feeling that come from their belly.  This really starts to slow down the body’s systems so they can get more oxygen going through their body.

When you do this, your muscles will start to relax.  Your brain will be a little bit more clear and able to focus. You’ll start to feel your heart rate and breathing rate slow down.

When you do that, your body realizes, “Oh, this isn’t a threat.  This isn’t something that’s going to hurt me.  This is okay,” and gives you a little bit more power and control to be able to go out and do whatever it is that you want to be able to do.  The double axle, the triple Salchow, the back handspring, the performance on stage in front of a large crowd.


Just like you practice your skills and your sport, just like you repeat that double axle, or you repeat your short program, or you repeat your beam routine, just like you do it over, and over, and over again, you can practice being in control of your breathing.  The more you can use that in practice, when you’re trying new skills, really getting comfortable with using breathing as a tool, it’s going to come more naturally when you get into a more stressful or a performance setting.

Breathing is Your Reset Button

I like to think of breathing kind of like a reset button for you.  It’s what brings your body back to a state of calm.  Think about being on your computer or your phone and it starts to overload because you have a bunch of different tabs open – you have apps going, music playing, and all these things happening.  It often starts to freeze or slow down.

Our bodies do the same thing when they’re under a lot of stress.  Breathing is that reset, like turning the computer off, or turning the phone on, restarting it, and bringing it back to a state where it can operate effectively.

2. Body Awareness

The second thing I want to talk about is this idea of body awareness, or as I like to call it a body scan or a body check-in.  This is the idea of taking notice of how your body’s feeling because sometimes we don’t realize how much our body’s being affected by stress, anxiety, or by the situation that we’re in.  We’re getting a little worked up but we don’t really realize how that’s affecting our body.

One of the biggest things that’s affected is our muscles.  We start to tense up in our muscles.  I’ll use figure skating as an example.  If you think about it, as soon as your muscles tense up, they don’t really move as freely.  The biggest thing that affects in skating is timing.

Let’s say I’m trying to do my double axle under pressure, or maybe I’m really wanting to master this element, or I know I’ve got a competition coming up, and try to perfect it and build the consistency.  If I’m tense and my muscles are tightened up, I’m going to go into that jump and it’s going to throw my timing off because I might not be able to move as fluid and smoothly as I draw back and step into the take off of that jump.  Maybe even the quickness that’s needed is going to be a little bit off because sometimes we can’t even move as quick when our muscles are tensed up.

Checking In

This body awareness is going to be a chance for you to check in and ask yourself, “How’s my body feeling?  Do I feel like I’m holding on to some tension?”  One of the biggest places we hold it is our shoulders.  They become like a second set of ears.

What you do is you start to check in and you start to think, “All right, what do I feel in my body?”

Letting Go of the Tension

Sometimes we can’t notice that tension.  I encourage athletes to intentionally tense up their muscles and then release them.  They might feel a really big difference between what it feels like to be tense and what it feels like to be completely relaxed.

Sometimes I’ll encourage athletes to tense up, hold it for a couple of seconds, and then as they take a nice, deep breath, let it all go.  They might even shake it all out and let go of that tension.

Weapons Check

I call this a weapons check.  In a lot of sports like figure skating, for example, your muscles and your body are your weapons.  That’s what you’re using to go out and perform and tackle these difficult skills.  If those weapons aren’t tuned up and ready to go, then you’re not going to be able to perform at your best.

You might want to check those and see how’s everything feeling.  “How’s my body doing? Do I need to let go of some of that tension in order to be able to do this double axle, to be able to get through my short program, to be able to get through my long program in a nice, fluid, and effective manner?”

Tips for Practice & Competition

I like to give a disclaimer that everything I’m talking about can be used in both practice and in competition.  It’s not just reserved for stressful performance situations.  If you practice it in practice, it’s going to come.  It’s going to be there.  It’s going to be a variable to you in competition.  I encourage you to try all of these things out on a daily basis in practice – don’t just save them for competition.

Pick Focus Words

The last thing I want to talk about is using focus words.  These are particular words that help to direct your attention to what you need to pay attention to in order to perform a specific element.

A lot of times, we get into this mindset of, “I can’t mess up, I can’t fall,” or focusing on what we don’t want to have happen.  “Don’t pop it, don’t fall on it, and don’t make a mistake.”  The focus on what you don’t want to have happen can really, really start to affect how your body’s feeling and can really affect your confidence.

These focus words can be things that are motivating and encouraging.  They might be things that help shift your energy, to help you relax, or to help pump yourself up.  They might be words that are technical in nature that help you remember to keep your core strong, or to keep your left shoulder in front.

What you want to do is really start to tune in that attention to what do you want to have happen when you complete your double axle?  What do you want to have happen when you do your back handspring on the beam?  Coming up with words that allow you to focus in on that.

Let’s take a double axle, for instance.  You might need to focus on attack.  Maybe you need to focus on power.  You might need to focus on being tight in the air or taking your time as you’re going into the jump.  Maybe your focus needs to be on spring to get that nice lift up into the air.

Repeating Your Focus Words

I often encourage athletes to come up with three focus words for each of their elements that they might be experiencing some anxiety or some nerves about.  For example, for a double axle, as you’re going into that double axle, every time you’re repeating those three words in your mind.  Those focus words are helping bring your focus to what you want to have happen and, therefore, increasing your chances of success on that element.

Using these three different strategies can be really one way of helping to control the butterflies.  There’s lots of different things that you could do as an athlete, but I like these three strategies because they’re pretty simple and straightforward, and they’re applicable to a lot of different sports and a lot of different situations.

You’re in Control

What I want to articulate here and what I want to tell all of you as athletes, as coaches, as parents of athletes, is that athletes have the power to be in control.  I think sometimes we forget that that’s a possibility and we let the nerves and the anxiety take control of our performance.  The best chance you’re going to have to be able to perform at your best and to feel happy and satisfied with your performance is to take that initiative and take control of the butterflies rather than having them take control over you.

I’m going to leave you with that thought.  By practicing your breathing, your body awareness and body scan, and using focus words, you have the power to be able to gain control of the butterflies and to, therefore, perform the way you ideally want to and to feel happy when you do it.

I hope that this was helpful and that you can take something from this and try it out maybe this week in practice.  Please know that if you want to talk a little bit more about this, I’m always available to chat about this or any other concerns that you might be having.

I really enjoy working with figure skaters, so feel free to reach out.  I’m happy to provide support to anybody who might want to talk more about those ways of controlling the butterflies.

I look forward to coming back on here for my next Facebook live next month with a new topic.  If you have any questions, reach out.  For more online training support, check out our PerformHappy community.

It was great talking to you and I hope everyone has a great evening.  Keep performing happy.  Have a good one.

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