How To Train Yourself To Stop Pre-Competition Nerves

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Techniques athletes can use to stop anxiety affecting their performance.

Priory cognitive behavioral therapist, Lauren Povey, outlines techniques that athletes can use to stop anxiety affecting their performance


Anxiety can have a dramatic impact on performance. The psychological state, which is often caused by stress and worry, is commonly experienced by athletes at all levels.

Lauren Povey, cognitive behavioural therapist who supports people with anxiety at the Priory Hospital in Chelmsford, Great Britain, has outlined techniques people can introduce into their training to reduce the impact that nerves have on how they perform.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a proven treatment that helps people to recognize unhelpful thought patterns and how they are choosing to respond to them. It allows people to become aware of their negative thoughts so that they can adapt and change the dysfunctional behaviors that then follow. 

Lauren said: “While you may think that your performance is just driven by external factors like your opponents, the weather or an injury, it is also influenced by what you think you can and can’t do, as a result of these external factors.

“While we can’t stop our thoughts, we can change how we choose to respond to them.”

Recognize and reframe your negative thoughts

In the run up to and after competitions, take time in the evening to write down moments when you became anxious and reflect on what you thought, how you felt and how you went on to behave. Think about answering the following questions to help you:

  1. What caused you to become anxious? Was it warming up before your race? Was it seeing other competitors? 

  1. What did you think at the time? Did you automatically gravitate towards thoughts that you were going to race badly or that you were going to make a mistake? 

  1. What will happen if you continue to think this way? Will your anxiety cause you to be distracted in moments when you should be focused? Will it lead you to constantly doubt yourself? 

  1. How can you challenge the initial thoughts you had at the time? You know you’ve put in the practice and achieved this many times before.

  1. What would be a healthier way of thinking about the situation? You may want to think, “I’m going to try my hardest to do the best I can.” 

  1. What can you do the next time you think negatively? Make a conscious effort not to dwell on your negative thoughts the next time they arise. When you feel them welling up, focus on your experience, skill and the previous achievements you have made instead.

Once well-versed in this technique, you will be able to pause and redirect yourself away from negative thoughts the moment they arise so that they don’t distract you from your main focus.

Visualize your success rather than your failure

 In the lead-up to your race, regularly visualize the achievement that you want. This will act as a non-verbal instruction, training your body to act confidently in moments when you otherwise would have been nervous.

Just like any skill you use in your sport, it needs to be practiced to be perfected.

  • Find a private, calm space and make yourself comfortable

  • Take a few slow and deep breaths to calm yourself

  • Close your eyes

  • Set the scene - make it feel like you are actually there. What does the race venue look like? What’s the color of your another participant's swim cap? What can you hear?

  • If you are worried about a skill or strategy you have been struggling with, imagine yourself doing it perfectly and confidently

  • Do you get distracted by negative thoughts during a race? Try to imagine yourself poised, relaxed and focused, performing exactly the way you want to under conditions you’d normally find nerve-wracking.

  • Remain in the moment for five to 10 minutes or until you feel relaxed

  • Assure yourself that you can return to this place whenever you want or need to relax

Swap your negative inner dialogue for positive self-talk

Anxiety can cause you to focus on all the mistakes you could make and believe that the worst possible scenario will happen. Swapping this for positive self-talk can prevent these thoughts from intensifying and impacting you before, during and after your performance.

  • Before your race - before entering into a high-pressure situation, prepare with positive statements such as, “It’s going to be tough but worth it,” or “I’m going to do as well as I possibly can.”

  • During your race - stay positive throughout the experience. Use positive statements like “Concentrate on what is going on, not on how you feel,” “This is just anxiety, I know it will pass,” or “I know I’ll be fine.”

  • After your performance – remember to give yourself praise after an achievement such as: “I did it, I’m getting better,” “I’m making progress,” or “I did that well.”

Even when things don’t go quite to plan, you should take the time to review – any small step that you make is progress.

Know when to get help for anxiety

If you feel like your symptoms are becoming more persistent and are having an impact on your day-to-day life, it is important to visit your doctor. He or she will be able to determine whether you need any further professional treatment.

About Priory Group: The Priory Group is the leading independent provider of behavioral care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organized into three divisions – healthcare; education and children’s services; and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognized as a global leader in behavioral health.


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date: December 29, 2018

Team BT