Before you read the rest of the blog post, try to answer the question: Is it a bad thing to be nervous?
The other weekend, I was at a youth national comp. Mostly because I wanted to observe the whole competition as well as how the athletes I work with behave and deal with the situation. The aim was to take notes so we could together reflect the competition in hindsight – what they did well, what they could do better, and what little steps they can take to improve. As always, a very interesting and enlightening experience.
In the afternoon, I was asked by some athletes whether I could join in isolation before the finals. Well, why not? (To be honest, I think in isolation the most exciting things are happening :-)). Just before it got closed, there were still some parents and friends hanging out in there. In particular, there was one mum having a conversation with her daughter. She had said to her mum that she was nervous before the climb. Her mum looked at her and said with an importunate, unnerved tone in her voice, “Haven’t you had mental training? Why are you nervous?”
If you hear these sentences, what do you think? Is it ok to still be nervous – even though you have mental training? Is it not okay?
I suppressed my first impulse to get up and say something. Do you question a training or a trainer when someone can’t read a route properly or when your foot slips? I mean “haven’t you trained using small footholds"? Or haven’t you trained your endurance for long climbs? Why do you get pumped?
I didn’t say anything at the start. Later, after the observation, I went up to the girl and asked her how she felt. Again, she said she was nervous. So I asked what kind of nervous it was – a good one or a bad one, on a scale from 1-10, how nervous was she? She then told me that it was a “good nervous” and that she felt well prepared. We kept talking about past experiences where she had felt a similar “positively nervous” feeling and how she climbed back then, how that felt, as well as about the positive consequences – and then, how thinking about all these positive experiences in the past made her feel now.
I found this small example very insightful in many ways. “Being nervous” does not necessarily mean a bad thing. This girl found herself to be “positive nervous”, it was a good thing for her.
How is nervousness/anxiety triggered and what does this mean for our performance?
Anxiety is a normal and absolutely healthy emotion. It’s triggered as a reaction to a potentially dangerous stimulus. In such a situation, our fight and flight mode is activated – our sympathetic nervous system gets activated, among others, we might react on a physical level (increased pulse, sweat, increased focus, etc.). All of a sudden we have additional energy that is meant to be used to take action and, more or less, to “stay alive”.
But let’s be honest – most of us don’t ever experience anxiety or nervousness in situations that are actually life threatening. And as much as I think that it’s absolutely ok to be nervous in a competition – it’s definitely not a life threatening situation.
How anxiety can positively influence our performance
Being nervous and anxious doesn’t necessarily have to be bad and harmful. Just as the girl said, she was “positively excited”, it was a “good nervous”. Depending on the coping strategies we have and the experiences we have made in the past, we might be able to judge a stressful situation and the associated feeling of nervousness as something positive, exciting, challenging; as something we are capable of dealing with. New research shows that nervousness/anxiety can in fact improve our performance if we know how to respond to it.
Athletes who consider stressful events (such as competitions) as challenges - rather than threats - can gain energy from their anxiety. They can use the boost in energy to motivate themselves and, in turn, improve their performance. Researchers found out that athletes perform at their best when they acknowledge their anxiety or nervousness – instead of suppressing it. If we learn to name our emotions and accept them, we will be better able to devote our energy in our goals (Strack, Lopes, Esteves & Fernandez-Berrocal, 2017).
We can still be successful and perform well even when we are nervous – such as the girl was (who ended up on the podium by the way). For this, we have to be open to the idea that this “nervous energy” can fuel our performance. If we think of our anxiety as something that holds us back and influences our performance negatively, it will most likely turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Every single time we take action, despite feeling nervous, we will become mentally stronger and more confident. We will learn that we are able to deal with this anxiety and that we have strategies to tolerate and overcome our fear, and still perform at our best. Over time, we will be able to see stress as a challenge, rather than a threat.
So, LESSONS LEARNT #1 from this experience: Being nervous isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What do you think? What experiences have you made?