Q&A: Coping with competition nerves

  • Nicki Heath helps one of our “Sports Psychology for Success – Dressage” competition winners cope with her nerves on competition days

    Q. I have almost cracked my competition nerves, which used to make competitions a stressful rather than enjoyable experience, but I still suffer from stomach cramps on the morning of an event.

    The cramps are extremely bad, sending me running for the loo at least five or six times, which isboth painful and embarassing. I now have to get up half-an-hour earlier than I would otherwise, just to get this over with and not be late – a ridiculous situation.

    I have tried calm tablets and varying my routine to try to fool myself intothinking I’m not going anywhere, but with no success. Deep breathing is no good although I have considered hypnosis. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    Julie Halford

    A. I am sorry to hear that the manifestation of your nerves is spoiling what otherwise is an enjoyable day.

    You appear to be doing a lot of sensible things already. Incorporating the stomach ache into your program, and getting up early to “get it over with” is exactly the right action to take. However, youdon’t say how long the stomach ache lasts, or what is going on in your head, i.e. are you feeling negative about the day, and how you are getting on once you arrive at the show.

    There is no point in trying to kid yourself nothing is happening. Youare not fooling your unconscious and you are only succeeding in dampening down the adrenaline effects rather than controlling them.

    Try to see these nerves as a good thing – it is your body preparing you for the upcoming competition. Try to view them positively as anticipatory, excited nerves rather than negatively as something to survive.

    Fighting the physical symptoms can make the cramps and pain worse, so (and I know this doesn’t sound very helpful) try to accept it as part of your preparation routine, particularly if your actual performances are good and not subpar.

    Many athletes worry if they are not nervous, in fact there is one runner who is regularly sick by the track, and now worries if he isn’t sick!

    Nerves are usually brought on by imagination and negative thoughts so when you feel the symptoms, use run visual imagery of past shows when things have gone well through your head.

    Try to stay in “here and now” by focusing on each part of your preparation routine. Don’t let your mind run on to what’s coming later, which will trigger your body to start preparing early.

    Have a job list, starting with your breakfast if the symptoms start that early, and work steadily through it, giving yourself a mental tick for each job that you complete, eg: cleaning your boots, packing the lorry, plaiting.

    Make sure you give yourself time to complete each job without rushing. Every job you do well now will help you feel positive and in control when you get to the show. By staying focussed and active you will be able to prevent your mind running riot which leads to the body becoming all worked up.

    Hope this helps and good luck!

    Nikki Heath

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