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Pregame reframe: Use stress to improve performance

Is that a look of fear, stress, or nerves?

What's the difference between feeling nervous, and feeling excited?

I often ask athletes what the difference is between feeling nervous before competition and feeling excited.

The responses I typically hear involve this idea of varying levels of confidence. Specifically, some think that feeling nervous comes from "hoping it all works out", while feeling excited comes from "expecting to be successful". In short: Excited is a positive mindset, while nervousness is a negative mindset.

They're not wrong.

But the biggest difference between feeling nervous and feeling excited is perception. After all, the chemical reaction in the brain is the same for both: the stress reaction.

Stress flow

When I played I always talked about being excited for big games. Nervousness felt like a weakness, it felt like opening the door to failure, it felt like inviting self-doubt in for afternoon coffee.

I don’t think I was ever taught to do this, to think excitement as opposed to nervousness. It just felt like a more confident mindset.

Besides, I usually was excited to play, so it wasn’t like I was tricking myself into waiving off pregame jitters. Practice was fun, too, but competing really was the best part!

So I often teach this little reframing trick to athletes: When you start to feel the butterflies, focus on being excited to compete.

It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it." - Lou Holtz

Don't just take it from me...

It turns out there is some fascinating research behind this concept aside from my own anecdotal experience.  Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Professor Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School designed an experiment…

Study #1

140 people were recruited to give a speech. One group was told to tell themselves: just relax, while the other group was told to tell themselves: I’m excited. Both groups continued to be nervous going into their speech, but the ones that framed those feelings with, I'm excited were more confident in their ability to give a good speech.

Furthermore, they were rated higher by observers in persuasiveness, confidence, and competency in their given speeches.

The takeaway?

Welcoming stress and nervousness in pressured situations can give you confidence and increase performance.

Study #2

Another study, done by Professor Jeremy Jamieson of The University of Rochester, found that reframing stress helped students perform better in the GRE (Graduate Record Examination).

With a group of 60 students, he baselined their stress level with a saliva sample. He then gave half of those students a brief pep talk, telling them:

“[P]eople think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly. However, recent research suggests that stress doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance. People who feel anxious during a test might actually do better … if you find yourself feeling anxious simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well.”

With that pep talk in play, Professor Jamieson found that students performed better than their peers in GPA, SAT scores, etc. In fact, he even gave this group a second saliva test and their nervous hormones were actually HIGHER, not lower, than the students who didn’t perform as well.

The results proved that the pep talk raised the students’ nervousness level but also gave them the message that their nervousness would help them… and it did


Perception really is everything.


Athlete applications

So many athletes want to avoid pre-competition butterflies. Why? It makes them uncomfortable, they think it’s a negative thing, and the ironic part is that many of them are actually too calm going into competition.

I see this a lot with younger athletes- they’ve been taught somehow that the physiological reactions we experience when we are nervous or excited are automatically bad. Sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and butterflies are interpreted as a negative thing instead of using them to help their minds and bodies gear up for competition.


A special note to coaches

“Coaching is stressful, stressful, stressful.”

How often do you hear that message from other coaches? How often do you hear yourself spreading that message?

Well, this reframing exercise can help increase satisfaction and performance even in your job.

In a study published in 2014 in Cognition and Emotion, researchers at Jacobs University in Germany followed teachers and physicians for a year.

At the beginning of the year, the group was asked if they saw anxiety as a helpful feeling, providing energy and motivation, or as harmful. By the end of the year it was clear:

Those who saw stress as helpful were less likely to be burned out, frustrated, or drained.

Ready to start training the mental game?

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The Coaches Cheat Sheet uses visualization, positive self-talk, breathing, and mindfulness to help coaches get their athletes’ head in the game once and for all. 

This is simple enough to be a great starting point for coaches who want to begin mental training their team, and robust enough to be a great addition to any existing mental training program. 

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Have you ever used stress to your advantage?

Start the conversation and share your own tips in the comment section below.

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