Whether it’s race-day nerves or feeling anxious about tackling a new challenge, don’t let fear cripple you and restrict what you can achieve. Sports Psychologist Evie Serventi has some advice

Any new challenge, or one that presents something to win or lose, sparks a physical response of nerves, fear or adrenaline. This ‘pressure’ is natural, and in an unknown and challenging situation; it’s normal. We’ve all had butterflies, knots in our stomach, sweaty palms, heart pounding – these physical symptoms are a normal response to pressure. What separates those who feel ready to tackle the challenge (excited anticipation) and those who feel crippled with nerves (anxious anticipation) comes down to your psychological response to pressure, and how you prepare. In sport psychology we call this response to pressure being in a challenge (excited) state or threat (anxious) state.

Pay attention

Self-awareness is the first step towards preparing yourself mentally for any new challenge or race. Get to know how you respond to pressure situations by going through a physical and mental checklist (see below), keeping track of your thoughts and feelings. This will help you become more familiar with your response patterns, which leads to greater self-awareness and ability to cope with the demands of a situation. These factors are also important prerequisites for developing a challenge state when approaching your next pressure situation.

Pre-challenge checklist

  • What’s your pre-performance routine when attempting a new challenge?
  • Is the kit you’re wearing comfortable/adequate?
  • Are the thoughts running through your head motivating or hindering? Try to stop yourself from thinking negative thoughts – think positive thoughts and try to talk to yourself as if you are a friend trying to boost your confidence
  • Are you thinking about ‘not failing or messing up’ or are you focusing on doing your best?
  • Do you reflect on the training you’ve done to date, or the training you should have done/need to do?
  • How is your body feeling physically? Are you tense? Are you breathing effectively?

Challenge and threat

The ‘state’ you are in leading up to abseiling off that cliff, facing a new challenge, or preparing for your first triathlon can have a huge impact on your performance. Research across a variety of sports and athletic abilities reveals that those who experience a challenge state when approaching a pressure situation can actually perform better than they normally would, while those who experience a threat state in the same situation can actually perform worse than they would normally. A challenge state is developed by focusing on your resources (I call this your mental toolkit) which considers everything you have at your disposal to help you to perform at your best: the sense of accomplishment with the training goals you’ve achieved; the improvements you’ve made; the self-confidence you’ve developed; and crucially, focusing on what’s within your control.

Develop a challenge strategy to overcome nerves

These three crucial resources will help you develop a robust challenge strategy so that you learn to manage your nerves, control your adrenaline and
perform well:

Focus on what can be achieved

This means thinking about wanting to do your best (achieving/succeeding) rather than thinking about avoiding ‘messing up’ (failure). Sport psychologists call this your ‘achievement/goal orientation’. Think about it: when preparing to abseil down that rock face, what thoughts are going through your head? Do you have your ‘wanting to succeed’ or ‘not wanting to fail’ hat on? Your approach has a significant impact on your physiological and psychological readiness.

Nurture self-confidence

A vital psychological factor when it comes to your sporting performance. Again, think about how you talk to yourself – what’s your inner voice saying? Where do your sources of confidence come from? Your coach, yourself, others? When you find yourself having ‘unhelpful thoughts’ try to defuse from them and present them from a different angle. Example; “I’ll never be a top swimmer, I started so late in life” can be flipped into something more helpful: “It’s never too late to start and while I’m not the fastest swimmer, I’ve come so far and will do my best”.

Identify what you can control

The more uncertainty we feel, the more pressure we feel. When approaching a rock face in the elements for the first time instead of in a climbing centre, focus on certainties (controllables) rather than what you have no control over. Controllables include the training you’ve accomplished, the kit you are carrying, the support you’ll have from your climbing buddy/coach, the time of day you choose to do it, how you prepare the night before, etc. Uncontrollables include the weather, structure of the rock face, etc.

Accept that fear is a normal reaction

Any stressful situation, whether a new challenge you’ve chosen to do or something unexpected, triggers the sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones/adrenaline that produce physiological changes (increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate). Basically, your body is very quickly preparing to protect you – to react to the threat/situation (fight) or to avoid it (flight). It takes about 20 to 60 minutes for your body to return to its pre-arousal state. The key thing to remember is that the body’s normal reaction to a stressful situation can be triggered by real or imaginary threats. While the fight or flight response is normal, how you perceive and prepare for a pressured situation, that is, whether you develop a challenge or threat state, can make all the difference to your enjoyment and the outcome of what lies ahead.