fbpx

The Power of Preparation: Overcoming Nerves to Boost Performance

Introduction

Nerves play a big part in sports – from grassroots to the big league, from the kid in their first important game in little league to the veteran professional facing a pivotal playoff game.

“But there’s no cure for nerves,” says Dr. Bob Rotella, who has coached everyone from business leaders to LeBron James.

A 2018 research paper recognized the impact and extent of nerves and stress on elite athletes, saying, “Stress can be amplified within elite sport and the pressure they experience in relation to competition and performance can be exacerbated by adverse life events.”

But nerves needn’t be all bad; they can act like fuel.

Take Bode Miller, USA Alpine Skier and six-time Olympic medalist:

“You feel the Olympics and you get chills and nervous and a little scared. You go through the emotional roller coaster at what it’s like to compete at the Olympic level and you let that run through your whole body.”

With the right practice, training, and the mindset, limits fall away. Nerves don’t disappear, but they also don’t get in the way.

What’s stress?

During moments of high stress, our bodies and brains experience a host of changes—a shot of adrenaline, rapid heart rate, more sweating, and increased breathing.

For our young athletes, it’s like a first kiss. And just like that kiss, they can recognize feeling nervous as part of the experience – hopefully a good one.

When Jimmie Johnson, winner of seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships trophies, came to Rotella, he had this to say, “What if I told you that on the night before a race, I am scared to death that I’m going to get in the car and totally forget how to drive a race car?”

And it’s the same with our young track athlete, swimmer, or basketball player. They lie awake at night, asking, “Can I do this?” “Am I ready?” “Do I deserve to be here?”

But as Rotella responded to Johnson, “Have you ever gotten in the car and forgotten how to drive it?”

Rotella knows a great deal about what success means and how to get there, and he says that if you practice and trust your abilities, they are there when you need them.

But you need to commit long before the pressure is on.

Our high school and college athletes can use their nerves to make them ready for what’s ahead.

What does the research tell us?

Let’s pause for a moment and think about what the research tells us about our stress – or nerves.

Sports psychologists know that how athletes deal with nerves impacts their sport, and how they relate to their sport impacts their nerves. It’s a two-way street. They’re connected – each limiting or boosting the other, depending on perspective, mindset, and readiness.

If our athletes don’t have the tools to handle the pressure of training and competition and stress builds up, it can have a significant and far-reaching effect, including:

● Mental ill-health – including depression and anxiety
● Substance abuse
● Bad eating habits
● Poor performance – academic and sporting
● Failing resilience

So, seeking help with anxiety, stress, and ‘nerves’ is not weak, far from it. It’s a signal that someone needs support to perform at their best.

Reframing stress

Let’s step out of sport for a moment. Stress can impact all of us in any area of our lives.

Rotella tells of when John Rzeznik, guitarist and songwriter for the ‘Goo Goo Dolls,’ reached out for help and guidance. By then, the band had several hit albums but hadn’t made much money due to how the recording contract had been set up.

Now, with a new and better contract signed, Rzeznik needed to write their next epic album. But with millions of dollars on the line, he was stuck. Unable to write anything – paralysis by analysis.

Rotella recognized a common problem often found in elite athletes. Rzeznik needed to get out of the way of himself.

Rzeznik needed a process to follow – a ‘preparation process.’

It’s the same as when LeBron James wanted to become a better (perhaps the best) three-point shooter. His preparation process was committing to “two hundred three-point shots off the dribble and two hundred catch-and-shoot three-point shots every day in practice,” says Rotella.

Rzeznki needed to stop worrying about the result of his work and forget how others would judge it and do what he did best: write great songs.

And that’s exactly what he did, he focused on the process rather than the outcome.

The ‘Goo Goo Dolls’ next album went triple platinum.

But it’s not all ‘rock and roll’

‘Nerves’ are present in all sports because, ultimately, performance matters.

The Golf pro on a PGA tour doubts himself at the tee because he is under pressure. He ignores his well-practiced preshot routine (his performance process) and overthinks every decision.

Picture our high school or college athlete in a vital end-of-season game.

The football quarterback is doubting himself at the line of scrimmage due to the immense pressure he’s under. His nerves have kicked in. He disregards his well-rehearsed pre-play routine (his performance process) and overanalyzes every decision.

So, he needs to rely on his practiced skills. The ones that are automatic; that don’t require thinking. And most importantly, they don’t give a damn about nerves.

When he does so, he’s back in the game – literally.

Good habits

Good practice builds solid performance habits. And they are powerful when it comes to handling nerves.

After all, you can’t tell someone not to focus on the crowd or don’t be nervous. It doesn’t work.

Instead, our young athletes need to practice everything, from putting on their cleats, track shoes, or swim goggles to getting their nutrition right, over and over again.

The performance process must be so practiced they can close their eyes and ‘see’ every detail, because that will mean they can push their nerves to one side and perform at their best.

Everything has become automatic.

Letting go of fear

Yet, it’s not easy relying on our habits and performance routines. As kids, we were always told to pay attention and work carefully. Don’t switch off – focus!

Yet, that’s what we are asking our young athletes to do – let go of fear and conscious control and trust what they’ve been doing for months, possibly years, in practice.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University, refers to it as ‘flow.’ It’s that feeling of being fully immersed in what you are doing, automatically reacting while performing at your best. When you’re in flow, your nerves are the last thing on your mind.

And it’s been confirmed in research.

Nektarios Stavrou, a sports psychologist at the University of Athens, measured flow experiences in 220 athletes from a range of sports and found when athletes reported experiences of flow, they performed better, were more focused, more skillful, and enjoyed themselves more.

Recent 2021 research agrees and confirms that flow–being able to react automatically using habits and skills in practice–and self-belief in college athletes support one another.

Wrapping Up

So, a good performance process ignores the outcome. It works because it’s the go-to in high-pressure situations where overthinking a situation impacts nerves.

Through practice, our young athletes can treat games, matches, and competitions as they would in training. It’s not that they don’t recognize the importance of the event – they do.

Instead, they perform like they are at the World Series, NBA playoffs, or the Olympics all the time – every time.

They are so practiced at being their best that they recognize their nerves but don’t focus on them. Instead, they fall back on their habits, instincts, and well-practiced moves on the big day.

References

Clough, P., Strycharczyk, D., & Perry, J. L. (2021). Developing mental toughness: Strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing in individuals and organizations. Kogan Page.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Row.

Humphrey, J., & Hughes, D. (2023). High performance: Lessons from the best on becoming your best. Penguin Books.

Lee, S., Kwon, S., & Ahn, J. (2021). The effect of modeling on self-efficacy and flow state of adolescent athletes through role models. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Rotella, R. J. (2016). How champions think: In sports and in life. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Stavrou, N. A., Jackson, S. A., Zervas, Y., & Karteroliotis, K. (2007). Flow Experience and Athletes’ Performance with Reference to the Orthogonal Model of Flow. The Sport Psychologist, 21(4), 438–457. doi:10.1123/tsp.21.4.438

Souter, G., Lewis, R., & Serrant, L. (2018). Men, Mental Health and Elite Sport: a Narrative Review. Sports Medicine – Open, 4(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-018-0175-7