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7 Ways to Be Less Nervous Before Competition & How that Transcends to Everyday Life

Christopher Nolan, MetCon Photos, LLC

As a professional boxer with an extensive amateur career, I’m used to being the center of attention. During a fight, all eyes are on me and everything I do. Unlike most sports, there are not other teammates to “distract” people from my individual performance. Losing in boxing also means embarrassment in front of a crowd. Losing—as does winning—also risks injury. For these reasons, most athletes are extremely nervous before they step into the ring.

Over the years I have learned how to manage these pre-fight jitters. In 2012, I was evaluated by sports psychologist Ross Flowers, Ph.D. He found that not only am I calmer than the average fighter before a fight, but my stress level continues to decrease until the first bell rings, and shockingly, I am at my most relaxed during the actual fight. This is not an accident nor is it an individual quirk of genetics. Below I will outline the 7 methods I use to maintain a cool head. If these methods work for boxing, then they will work for any sport or in your personal daily life.

My stress level continues to decrease until the first bell rings

1. Preparation. This is the single best way to mitigate nervousness. When you have practiced hard and know that you are entering the contest at 110%, then you are prepared and have one less things to worry about. You can’t control if someone is better than you, but you can control how prepared you are. If it’s not your day make sure it’s because the opponent was genuinely superior; not because you were unprepared.

2. Perspective. The great MMA fighter Randy Couture once said to me “If the worst thing that happens in your life is that you lose a fight, then you’re doing alright.” Never forget that you are taking part in one moment that will be forgotten, in a place most will never see, and in a sport that most will never play. Your experience is as unique as it is forgettable. It’s important to you and I am not devaluing you, but in the grand scheme, it’s not life or death. Remembering this makes the event important but not life ending, and that perspective is what makes athletes nervous.

3. Process vs Outcome. Most people are focused on the outcome. They are concerned with winning, the accolades, the prizes, or the money. As a result, they are also worried about NOT achieving those things. Fear of failure is the kerosene to the flame of nervousness. To choke off this fire before it incinerates your performance, focus on the process instead. Focus on making the correct moves, being in the right frame of mind, making the correct decisions, and ultimately performing well. What you focus on is what matters. If you focus on the performance, then you are likely to perform well because that’s in your control. If you focus on the outcome, you are going to experience the nervousness of worrying about something that you can’t control.

4. Simplicity. The same sports psychologist that evaluated me in 2012 also gave me a valuable piece of advice for improving my performance. He told me that I should only think about doing 3 things particularly well. Many times in competition we try to be consciously aware of too many techniques and tasks while simultaneously dealing with the challenge. Preparation puts a lot of things in our subconscious so our actions become a “non-thinking” reaction, but we still worry and think about a lot we don’t have to. Three seems to be the limit of what you can consciously think about and still optimally perform. Pick the 3 most important things to focus on and let your subconscious do the rest. This has a calming effect by giving you a sense of control. Not feeling in control is one driving forces of nervousness.

5. Gratitude. You can dig up the various statistics on your sport and see that most people do not get the chance to compete. Even at a high school level, a surprisingly small percentage of the population ever competes in organized, sanctioned athletic contests. The percentage of people that compete at the collegiate or professional level gets even smaller. For any number of reasons, most people will never know what it’s like to be an athlete. This means that you are in a unique and fortunate position. Even if you are the worst player on the team, you’re still on the team! That’s a lot more than most people can say. Being appreciative of this fact is a great buffer against not only the nervousness before a contest, but it also guards against the mood swings that follow—win or lose.

6. Humility. Humility, like gratitude, is not so much a technique as it is a way of life. It’s not something you turn on when it’s all on the line and then when it’s over you’re back to arrogance. By making humility a lifestyle, you never let victory go to your head. This is important because it levels out your emotional responses. The highs and lows affect you less. This makes it easier for you do everything else listed in this article because you aren’t looking to the victory for validation. With victory being less of a burden, you can focus on the process, think less, and enjoy yourself more.

7. Have fun. If you don’t enjoy the sport you will only find joy in winning. This is unhealthy because there are many things that are beyond your control that can result in a loss. The glory can be taken away, your body can get injured, you can get benched, or even get cut and yes these are miserable events, but the one thing that helps is to have a reason for competing that no one can touch. I box because I love how it forces me to master my body, mind and emotions. No one can take away from the feeling of accomplishment I get when I gain control over my body and execute a new movement. This is my source of enjoyment in my sport. It’s important that you find a reason to have fun that is beyond anyone’s ability to remove. You can’t feel nervous if you are having fun.

Hopefully these 7 tools will help you manage your nervousness to keep competing at a high level. If they work for you in the ring, they can work for you anywhere!