9 Key Strategies to Calm Nerves Before a Match or Trial
Written by Adam Lussey
Every athlete in every professional sport has been nervous before a big game or event. That horrendous feeling of sweaty palms, difficulty breathing, and a racing heart rate happens to the very best. If left uncontrolled, however, this can lead to devastating performance anxiety (Woodman and Hardy, 2003).
As humans, we have evolved to display these physiological symptoms when confronted with a stressful situation. If the physical symptoms of nerves can’t be prevented, the best form of attack is to control them. Perfecting how to stay calm under pressure is one of the most important mental tools a player can have in his armory. So many players do great things in training, only to fall apart in matches because they don’t know how to stay calm and controlled when it counts the most.
In this article, we’re going to examine 9 of the most successful strategies to help calm those pre-performance nerves.
1. Develop your own pre-performance routine
This is number one for a reason! If used correctly, pre-performance routines can help you with a number of performance-related issues, such as improving attentional focus, reducing distractions, and overcoming negative thoughts (Cotterill, 2010).
Understand that this is far more than simply wearing the same “lucky” underwear or listening to the same “lucky” album before a game. There is no luck involved in a pre-performance routine, it’s quite intentional.
It is important to develop your own routine to prepare you both physically and mentally on game day. What works for your teammate may not necessarily work for you. Routines teach you to act autonomously, reducing the amount of thinking you need to do. Too much thinking mixed with pre-match nerves can lead you down a slippery slope of fear and “what if’s”. Pre-performance routines are the perfect way to prevent over-thinking and reduce the opportunity for your nerves and anxiety to take over your thoughts.
So, what does a pre-performance routine include?
Anything that you can keep REGULAR and REPEATABLE time after time. This could be:
- The time you go to bed the night before a match.
- Watching successful highlights of your previous performances on game day morning.
- The food you eat pre-match.
- The music you listen to on your way to the game.
Using some of the strategies outlined in the rest of this article, which have been proven to reduce nerves and anxiety, would be a perfect place to start. It will take time, trial, and error to develop your optimum pre-performance routine, but the benefits it can bring to your pre-match mental state and your performance on the pitch could be huge.
2. Control your pre-performance focus and concentration
There are 2 common concentration mistakes players make pre-game that can lead to pre-performance anxiety:
- Focusing too much on the outcome… if you put too much pressure on yourself to score or perform well, this increases your chances of stressing yourself out and underachieving. Instead...focus on the NOW!
- Focusing too much on the opponent… if you are too focused on the talent or reputation of the opposition, you will send your pre-game nerves through the roof. Instead...focus on YOU and YOUR job!
3. Do not dwell on the uncontrollable
It is very easy to get hung up on the things you cannot control right before it is time to perform. For example, things such as your opponent, the crowd or even the weather.
You have no control over the things your opponent does, how the crowd reacts or what the weather will be on match day. Focusing on these things will make you nervous and even undermine your confidence levels. Before heading into a match, ask yourself this question…“Do I have direct control over what I’m feeling nervous over?”
If the answer is no…focus your thoughts on the things you CAN directly control - YOUR preparation, YOUR pre-performance routine you have now perfected, and YOUR performance. Remember you can only control the controllable.
4. Breathing Control
When the first sign of nerves hits your body, immediately switch your focus of concentration to your breathing. You don’t have to be an expert in yoga to master the art of controlling your breathing.
Taking 10 slow and deep breaths, focusing on the feel and rhythm of your breathing can do the trick. This technique can be far more beneficial with practice, so try and regularly practice every night for 2-3 minutes before you fall asleep. Just a few breaths are taken immediately before a game can momentarily calm your nerves and remove stress and anxiety (Ma et al., 2017).
Also known as mental imagery or rehearsal, visualization involves imagining yourself being successful. This has been shown to have a number of significant performance benefits, such as improving confidence, motivation, but most significantly here, decreasing stress and reducing performance anxiety (Newmark, 2012).
Close your eyes, imagine the physical movements you are going to make in a game to be successful. Most importantly, imagine it from YOUR perspective, and make it as realistic to a match as possible.
Imagine the crowd noise, the physical battle with the opposition, use all your senses to make the imagined experience as close to a matchday as possible.
Incorporating visualization into your pre-performance routine can have a host of benefits to not only your pre-match nerves but also your performance on the pitch.
6. Cognitive Restructuring
This isn’t as sci-fi as it sounds! Cognitive restructuring simply means changing our habitual way of thinking. To combat pre-match nerves, it would aim to change any negative thoughts that may be causing or contributing to this performance anxiety. Research has found athletes who viewed anxiety as facilitating as opposed to debilitating had an improved performance (Martinent & Ferrand, 2015).
Cognitive restructuring could also be used to change the way you think about the upcoming game or trial. Thinking about the competition like a training game may put less pressure on you, allowing you to attach less significance to the game and reducing anxiety about your performance.
Recognizing negative thoughts when they first enter your mind allows you to stop them before they take hold so you can replace them with positive ones.
7. Distract Yourself
This is a simple, yet effective (albeit counterintuitive) strategy. It’s obvious during a game that you want as few distractions as possible. You have things to focus on clearly. However, it can be beneficial to positively distract yourself in an attempt to calm your nerves beforehand.
The idea is to engage in activities that help distract your mind from any negative thoughts that may creep into your mind and cause unnecessary anxiety. Things such as talking to teammates, listening to your favorite music, or anything else that may be part of your pre-preparation routine, in order to ease your mind of pre-match nerves.
8. Recognize and accept that pre-match nerves are normal
Getting nervous before a game isn’t a problem, it’s simply a physical reaction to the situation that you are in. It’s how we react that can create the problem. Many players freak out at any little sign of pre-game nerves…
“I’m nervous! I shouldn’t be nervous! I won’t perform well if I’m nervous!”
It is easy to misinterpret nerves as fear. The adrenaline rush is normal and is your body’s natural process in response to competition. Recognise it, accept it as a normal physiological response, but don’t focus on it!
9. Accept Failure
This last strategy will help the effectiveness of everything we discussed above and it is accepting that failure does indeed exist and, can be beneficial. Most negative pre-game thoughts are centered around the idea of poor performance. This can create additional anxiety but, accepting that failure is a regular occurrence in a match can lighten the load of this negative thought.
Fear of failure can sabotage success. The desire for perfection can lead to stress and absolutely destroy performance.
How do you conquer the fear of failure? By not letting it define you! Cristiano Ronaldo has missed 29 penalties in his career (17% of his total penalties). Lionel Messi has missed 30! (22% of his total...not to mention only recently finding success with his national team Argentina at the age of 34). They accept that missing a penalty can and will happen, they do not let the fear of missing interfere with their desire to take the next one. By treating failure as normal, you can learn to not be afraid of it, and banish fear from your pre-game nerves.
It takes skill and practice to accept rather than fight pre-performance nerves. If you can:
- Accept that nerves are your body’s natural response to competition.
- Embrace the challenges in your upcoming match or trial without the fear of failure.
- Use some of the strategies above to create your own pre-performance routine...
…you can enter the pitch giving yourself the best possible opportunity to be in full control of your mental and emotional state, allowing you to be ready to perform to your maximum. The players who control their nerves the best are the ones who are able to shine consistently on the biggest and brightest stages.
Cotterill, S. (2010). Pre-performance routines in sport: Current understanding and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3(2), 132-153.
Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., Wei, G. X., & Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.
Martinent, G., & Ferrand, C. (2015). A Field Study of Discrete Emotions: Athletes’ Cognitive Appraisals During Competition. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 86(1), 51–62.
Newmark, T. (2012). Cases in visualization for improved athletic performance. Psychiatric Annals, 42(10), 385-387.
Woodman, T., & Hardy, L. (2003). The relative impact of cognitive anxiety and self-confidence upon sport performance: A meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 443–457.