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How 4 Great Athletes Confront ‘Nerves’

Updated: Aug 29, 2021

Since the beginning of time itself, athletes, competitors, and students alike have been afflicted by the ailment known as performance anxiety. Whether you're stepping up to the plate, lining up at the start-line, or filling in an answer sheet, performance anxiety is always present in the life of a competitor. Although that may be true, the best performers are those who have developed their own coping mechanisms for avoiding or overcoming nerves, anxiety, or pre-game jitters. Simply put, the best of the best can't allow their nerves or the feelings of pressure to get to them. More specifically, in the lives of athletes it is not only expected, but it is demanded that we be able to put together a consistent performance day in and day out.

After interviewing Kelley Lynch (Gatorade Athlete of the Year), John Rhodes (National Co-Freshman Player of the Year), Karina Tyma (European Junior Champion), as well as Jake Marcum (BIG 10 Finalist), I've found myself being able to incorporate aspects of their personal coping mechanisms into my own training as an athlete. Each of their strategies varies, as does their effectiveness. It changes from person to person, but everyone should be able to take some aspects from each of their strategies and be able to utilize them in their everyday life. Whether it be a business presentation, a sporting event, or even a test! Here are four strategies to help you overcome performance anxiety:

Strategy 1 Preparation Is Key

Kelley: I think, when we started to get into the season last year and we were actually playing games, I learned that preparation was confidence for me. I know that if I’m putting in the work and doing as much as I can during the week, then when I’m in the game I’m able to rely on that. There’s just an inner voice saying, “You’ve worked harder than her,” and it's just that confidence that you’ve prepared for this moment. I think, when I look back, I had an amazing high school career. Yet there was so much more I could’ve given, and I feel that as an athlete that's the worst feeling.

Richmond: Do you think part of that confidence is from your past experiences? You’ve been able to play internationally and on a national level.

Kelley: Yeah, definitely. When I played with the U-19 USA Team I was surrounded by some incredible athletes from all over the country who had already played their freshman year of college, so that summer was just very eye opening for me. I was just trying to soak in as much information as I could. I learned a lot about how the system may change, but it's still the same game and you just have to outwork the people you’re surrounded by. I really took that to heart. When I got to campus that fall I thankfully had a school in UW that gives me all the resources and lets me put in as much work as I want to, practically whenever I want. So, I think playing with the U-19 team definitely gave me some insight for my freshman year.

Strategy 2 Put Things Into Perspective

John: This past season was definitely humbling. When I think about my experience as a whole because, you know, we only got one month into the season. Before that, right after high school I had two months of summer playing in a college league. So there were just all these college guys and like three high schoolers in the entire league. And so, at first I struggled. I was like: "I'm not ready for this, I'm gonna be the worst baseball player-- the worst college baseball player ever.” [laughs] And then as I settled in, I reminded myself that it's just baseball. The same thing when the season actually started this earlier this year. In our first series, we played TCU and it was overwhelming. I let the crowd get in my head and stuff like that. By our last game, on Sunday I was saying to myself: "You know, it's still baseball." It was kind of about settling in and realizing these guys are my age. You've kind of got to put it into perspective. Like, instead of thinking of them as these big college guys, I think of them as kids who are basically 18-23 years old. At the end of the day it's just good baseball. So when you dumb it down to that you're still playing the same game, you're still running 90 feet to first, you're still 60 feet away from the pitcher. So you've got to put everything into perspective.

Strategy 3— Have an Underdog Mentality

Richmond: So how do you handle the stress of being able to play on all these big stages? You’ve played for all these huge championships and you've won. From the European Junior Championships to the Polish National Championships. How do you do that? A lot of athletes tend to get really bad nerves, how do you deal with that?

Karina: Honestly, I don't. With Europeans, for instance, I won the European Junior Championship, and I literally was seeded 8th. I wasn't seeded to win, and I think that helped me. Right now, when I play PSA (Professional Squash Association), I don't put as much pressure on myself because I know I'm still at college. I have another thing going on. And that helps me, because when you’re the underdog, you can just go off— you know?

Richmond: You don't think it gets to your head too much or anything?

Karina: I try to not think about it too much, because I think if someone says something to me, it'll probably psych me out. I try not to listen to people and just kind of see what happens. I think my approach to tournaments is different from my approach to college squash as well. With college squash, I put more pressure on myself. You're no longer just playing for yourself. You're playing for a team. I think that was a big thing that was a lot different for me. When playing for a team, every one of my losses hit me hard because that could have been a point for the team. Whereas, when it's just me, there's far less pressure because I’m just playing for myself.

Strategy 4 Overcoming Nerves Through Prayer

Richmond: As an athlete, there's always a lot of nerves right before a big race or competition. How do you overcome any nerves you might get?

Jake: For me, it's honestly a lot of prayer. My faith is something that's really important to me. And, you know, I pray behind the blocks every time before I get in the water. If you ever watch me swim, you'll see me take a knee on the blocks and it helps me calm down a lot. Also, I tend to find that my warm-up routine is way different than a lot of people's. Many people will get in the water to warm up and whatnot, but I choose not to do that. I'll usually run around, do jumping jacks, push-ups, or some sort of land workout to get my heart rate up, so I'll start to break a little sweat. That helps me calm down a little bit because I can get the jitters out without wasting too much energy. I also use a lot of deep breathing and stretching. After that, I just sit there with my headphones in and listen to some music. That allows me to just shut everything out. All the noise and everything else that's around me.

I just shared how these four top athletes deal with performance anxiety. How do you do it? Tell us in the comments below! Feel free to share our tips and advice by hitting the share button and leaving a like!


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