You’ve seen or experienced it before: an athlete practices and trains with focus, determination, and passion for a competition only to tighten up in their big moment.
All that work….wasted.
Seeing an athlete break down and self-sabotage is heartbreaking. Nerves are complicated, and every athlete is different. For one athletes, nerves may make them just a little more hesitant, a little less joyful, a little more stressed than they need to be. For another, nerves can be the trigger that unleashes a flood of emotions. (And of course, for a lucky few, nerves are the thing that they need to compete at their best.)
Big or small, nerves often have unpredictable results and make it difficult for many athletes to play to their full potential.
When there is unrealistic pressure, it’s easy for athletes to get way too nervous, even quit on themselves, their goals, or their belief in what they can do.
So how do you as a coach help your athletes deal with their nerves? After all, sports can be emotionally brutal, and pressure is part of the struggle. So how can we help our athletes keep everything in perspective, and find fun and joy IN the struggle?
The solution is really not that tough. When I’m coaching an athlete, I start with the premise that the pressure (and the subsequent pain and frustration) is self-imposed. I don’t mean they are made up, I mean athletes have a choice and it’s often not the pressure alone that gets to them; its that the pressure make them ‘get in their own head’ too much and perpetuate negative thoughts, add more and more unhelpful energy to the situation, and generally create a self-imposed prison.
The good news is that since it is self-imposed, it can also be solved with the self. All it takes is knowing what to do when the nerves start taking over. The best way I’ve found to help athletes release themselves from their nerves is to help them cultivate a mindset of gratitude. It’s that simple.
Recently, I had the pleasure of working with a 16-year-old basketball player (I’ll call her “Kaylie”) who was feeling a lot of pressure and stress about her summer AAU tournament schedule. This was inevitably leading to her playing tight, not having fun, and really wanting to get the entire summer over with. I’ll use our conversation together as an example.
First, Kaylie and I sat down together and I began taking her through a series of questions (my questions are in bold, Kaylie’s response are in italics).
Me: What exactly are you nervous about? Write a list.
- I’m super nervous because I really want a college scholarship and I know college coaches will be watching me this summer.
- I get really nervous when my coach yells at me during the game
- I know my parents are hoping I play well because they’ve helped me so much so I don’t want to let them down.
- I just really want to do well because I’ve been working really hard and just really want to show how much I’ve improved.
Me: Do you think basketball has gotten more from you or have you gotten more from basketball?
Kaylie: I’ve gotten more.
(Inevitably they will agree that they have been the beneficiary. So I continue.)
Me: Has basketball asked anything from you except hard work and giving your all?
Me: So do you want to give back to your sport?
(To be honest, athletes usually say, “Yes” with a mixture of enthusiasm and nervous anticipation like ‘what are you about to make me do?’ But nevertheless, they ‘get it’.)
Me: How do you think your performance would change if it went from all the things you WANT from basketball to all the things you can GIVE?
Kaylie: I think I would have more fun and be less worried about myself.
Me: What are a couple things you can do today to ensure that you focus on the things you can give?
Kaylie: I can practice as hard as I can, high-five my teammates even more than usual and just play with passion.
Me: Great. Call or text me after practice and let me know how you feel.
(I always like to have some sort of check-in so they have some accountability especially for that first day or first practice.).
By reframing nerves with a simple conversation, Kaylie now has an attitude of gratitude that naturally shifts her focus from all the ways she MUST be successful and MUST play well and MUST win, to what she can GIVE. Adopting a “what can I give?” attitude changes everything, and repels nerves. Once the decision for gratitude has been made, the nerves naturally will begin to slip away, effortlessly.
Of course, I could go on and on with Kaylie and sometimes I do continue the conversation with an athlete. But usually at this point they ‘get it’ and there really isn’t more information they need. They came to this conclusion on their own which is always more powerful than being told how to think.
For more on reframing nerves, check out our blog, Pregame Reframe: Use Stress To Improve Performance.