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Competition Anxiety: Five quick and easy ways to control the butterflies in your stomach
By:  Katie McMahon   (2011/05/26)


We all know the feeling; clammy hands, sweaty forehead, the sensation of sick rising in our throats. At a competition, or even sometimes weeks before hand, a single thought of racing will start our hearts pounding and send an uncontrollable wave of fear through our bodies. The worst part of it is that sometimes all of this worry and anxiety will prevent us from performing at our best. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we end up under-performing because the panic of not "doing well" is holding us back. However, not all of us have the luxury of seeing a Sports Psychologist on a regular basis so we have to find ways on our own to cope with our nervousness. The following are five quick and easy ways to get control of the butterflies in your stomach:

1) Create a Pre-Race Routine

Many athletes find that creating a pre-race routine helps calm them down before competition. Developing a routine minimizes the amount of unknowns of a competition; something that causes anxiety for many people. Depending on your sport, a pre-race routine can include things like knowing exactly what you will do in your warm up, how many minutes before hand you will get to the start line or even wearing your lucky pair of socks and tying your shoes with an extra tight knot. An ideal routine should fill up all the time between when you arrive at the event and when the gun goes off, leaving you next to no time to even get nervous.

2) Positive Self Talk and Key Words

Once you’ve become comfortable with your pre-race routine, a ritual that should always go along with it is positive self talk. When the "devil on your shoulder" pipes up with a negative, discouraging comment or a quitting attitude, fight back with positive thoughts and self encouragement. However, once the evil monster of anxiety starts to speak its mind, it is very hard to drown it out. In this case, practice is what makes perfect, until one day the negative thoughts won’t even start. The positive self talk should not stop at the pre-race phase, but should carry into and is extremely important in the competition itself. A way to help remind yourself to keep up the encouraging mantra is to pick a key word and physically write it somewhere you can see before and during competition. Key words can be anything from breathe, relax, focus, to strong, tempo, smile, depending on what you feel helps you to do better. As for writing this word somewhere you can see, it really depends on your sport. Runners may write it on their wrists, skiers can tape it to their poles or write it on their skis and swimmers can even sew it to their towels. No matter where you put it, your key word is there to cheer you on and help you through those challenging times.

3) Write a Confidence List

The night before your big competition try writing something called a confidence list. Every item on this list begins with the words "I will do well in this competition because..." and then you finish the sentence with a reason such as "...I gave it my all in training" or "...I am strong" or "...I set a PB in my last run", etc. Writing down a list of solid, unarguable proofs of why you will do well helps you to believe it and in turn decreases your anxiety. Feeling prepared for the competition is an essential part to handling your nerves. The morning of your race, read over your confidence list and even bring it to the competition if you feel the need.

4) Step into the Bubble

Getting into your "bubble" or what some like to call "putting the blinders on" is a great way to deal with your anxiety, especially if it is caused by the people or events around you. If your competitors or who has come to watch you is what triggers your stress, picture yourself inside a bubble. Everything outside of your bubble is blurry and the sounds are muffled. The only thing you see is what is right ahead of you and the only thing you hear is the sound of your own breathing. If someone you know passes you, or there are really "fast-looking" people at the start line, you do not notice them and can better focus on doing the best you can be. This skill, though highly effective once perfected can be quite challenging to refine. Some people use an iPod to help them get into their bubble and ignore others around them, others wear sunglasses, all of these things are tools you can use to reduce your anxiety and truly focus on yourself.

5) Keeping Things in Perspective

As stressful as competition can be, it is important to keep in mind that sport is just that: sport. It is meant to be fun, and give a sense of accomplishment, no matter who you are. A great deal of athletes struggle with this, feeling as though their whole lives depend on their result in the next competition. Though this may be true in extreme cases where winning a race means you get money to pay for your super or determines whether or not you stay on a team, the average person is competing for themselves for the simple joy sport brings them. It is important to remember that the sport you do is only one part of you, your result does not change what a wonderful person you are. At times, competition can seem scary and the exact opposite of fun, and in those times it is essential to ask yourself this question: "why am I doing this?" If the answer is anything other than "...because I love this sport", or "...because I love the feeling of accomplishment I get at the finish line", then it may be time to seriously re-evaluate whether you should pursue the activity any further. Once you remind yourself of why you are here at this start line, it will give you a confidence boost and help you get ready to succeed. Most importantly, enjoy the moment! Whether you’re training for the next event or in the middle of pushing yourself to a new personal best, enjoy the feeling of driving yourself through that pain or the simple rustle of the wind in the trees. Training and competition take up enough of your time; you may as well enjoy it!

From a very literal, scientific perspective; anxiety is the feeling we get when our bodies react to what we perceive as a threat. Our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the "flight or fight" response, kicks into high gear when a competition approaches. This is simply because our bodies cannot differentiate between something harmless like sport and a bear attack; it reacts in the same way. What the above strategies are doing is teaching our bodies to calm down and to not over stimulate the "fight or flight response". However, as long as nerves do not hinder performance, some may be a good thing. The adrenaline our bodies pump during an anxious state can be useful during competition and actually help us do well. It is finding the balance that is the key to success.

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