Photo Credit: Stephan Potopnyk
*I wrote this article for Figure Skater Fitness Magazine, published: January 2016 issue.
Everyone experiences the jitters—nervousness before competing. Even the champions have them when they are about to compete. Tara Lipinski once said that the night before her long program at the 1998 Olympics she almost decided not to compete. She was so nervous, upset and anxious that she actually thought about pulling out of the competition. It’s a Good thing she didn’t let her nerves get the best of her. The next day, Tara was crowned the youngest Olympic champion in history. Top skaters just figure out how to deal with those nervous feelings effectively. We are all capable of learning the skills that allow us to handle our thoughts and emotions in order to perform at our best.
The starting point in mastering control over our nerves is being aware and catching ourselves in the moment we feel strong emotions emerging. Awareness means noticing your negative self-talk or, as coach Rick Carson calls it, your “gremlin.” It might be saying things like “you didn’t practice hard enough” or “your jumps aren’t as good as that person.” Observe how it makes you feel. Noticing your gremlin is what will allow you to change your state of mind when it isn’t serving you well.
Now that you’ve brought your awareness to your gremlin you can decide what you are going to do about it. Ask yourself “how do I want to feel?” From this question you can choose to do something that will change your internal experience. Here’s a toolkit with three simple and very useful strategies:
Tool #1: Reframing
Peter Jensen, Olympic Performance Coach talks about our ability to reframe our circumstances to develop a more optimistic mindset. We may not be able to choose the situations that we find ourselves in but we can choose the way we perceive them. Find reasons why the stressful situation could actually be motivating or helpful. The frame of a picture draws attention to certain aspects of it; so reframing is a great way to shift our negative thoughts into more positives ones.
Tool #2: Visualize your ideal outcome
Close your eyes and imagine your performance from beginning to end, exactly the way you want to execute it. Most importantly, picture the end result that you really want to experience such as coming to your finishing pose with conviction, the audience clapping, and the judges smiling. This will send a message to your body that you are capable of delivering your best program. Visualization propels a belief and trust in what you can accomplish.
Tool #3: Choose the struggle
It is absolutely impossible to achieve success without first struggling. Think about every top athlete or performer you admire. Did any of them get to where they are seamlessly, without facing any challenges? Every single one of them has been through numerous stressful situations before accomplishing their ultimate goals. So choose to accept and feel the struggle you are dealing with. Often this simple act of embracing the stress will be enough for our bodies to relax and figure out naturally how to use and work with our fears rather than against them.
Feeling nervous is a part of competing and those who deal with their nerves effectively are the ones who will pull through and perform at their best. Everyone is capable of this. It isn’t always easy to do; otherwise everyone would be skating clean at every competition all the time. This mental fitness can be strengthened the same way as physical fitness, through training and practice with strategic planning and goal setting. Confidence in your ability to perform well starts from within, an awareness of how you feel and of how you want to feel. From there you can change your outcome, you can change your destiny.