NATALIE BURTON OLY
When I stop playing basketball I often wonder what part of my life will provide me with the adrenaline rush I get before every game. The butterflies in my tummy that come from knowing that in a few hours I will have to perform and work hard and do everything I can to help my team win. The amazing feeling of the adrenaline coursing through my body as I start warming up and prepare to use the unique skills I have worked so very hard to develop and hone. I love that feeling, and it is why I still play, because it is a crucial part of being ready to perform.
So I have a real problem when asked on game day “Are you nervous for your game?!”
Because when I admit to them that yes, actually, I am rather nervous, I am bombarded with comments like “Don’t be nervous, you’ll be fine” or “Why? You’ve played in front of bigger crowds than this”. I know these people mean well, that’s not my issue. It’s just that it highlights the extent to which we put such a negative spin on being nervous without realising how this might affect our headspace and therefore our performance.
All too often I see coaches, parents, spectators, and most of all players themselves, who believe that being nervous is something to fear and avoid and a sign of a weak mind; something that only soft, unprepared, or inexperienced players get. When in actual fact, it is a completely normal reaction by our bodies, and if harnessed correctly, can actually help us to perform.
So how do we change the way we feel about being nervous and make sure we are using it to help us instead of hurt us?
Let’s look at the two opposing stories we tell ourselves about being nervous.
For me, being nervous before a game means that I’m ready for battle. It tells me that I will be able to put any minor pains to the back of my mind and I will be able to react in a split second. I will be able to sprint the floor when my legs are tired and my breathing is heavy. I am focused on all the good things that can happen if I do well. I like to call this ‘excited nervous’ because when I think about being excited it brings forth positive feelings of eagerness and enthusiasm.
When I feel nervous before a game, I focus on the horrible feeling in my tummy. I can’t eat because I feel sick. I’m scared of the pain that is coming during the game, and I’m worried about the outcome and the fact that we could potentially lose. Or that I could play horribly and feel crappy about my performance. I’ve had these thoughts before; it often leads to an anxious playing style full of second guessing and self-doubt. There is no flow and nothing seems to go right. I call this one anxious nervous; thinking of anxiety brings forth feelings of worry and unease.
The interesting thing is that the body’s reaction to being excited nervous and anxious nervous is actually the same; arousal. The same rush of adrenaline, the same feeling in your stomach, and, if you’re unlucky, the same sweaty palms. But when we tell our minds that what we’re feeling is excitement, we can harness the body’s natural reactions and use them to help us perform instead of allowing them to cripple us like anxiety so often does. Being excited is like a magic positive potion that helps us be more energised, productive, and aware.
What’s even more interesting is that when you try to convince yourself that you’re not feeling either excited or anxious, that in actual fact you’re cool and calm and not the slightest bit nervous, your mind doesn’t even bother to believe you.
In a study by Professor Alison Brooks at Harvard Business School, three different groups were to sit a math exam. One group had to tell themselves they were excited, another was told to try to calm themselves down, and the last was instructed to do nothing (aka be anxious, because we all know how it feels when faced with a math exam). The group that did the best was the excited group, the second best was the group who did nothing (the anxious group), and the worst was the group told to calm themselves down.
Think about that for a minute...harnessing your feelings of nervousness using a positive emotion like excitement can make you perform even better than using a crippling emotion like anxiety. But to totally deny them to yourself doesn’t work at all and definitely doesn’t help in any way.
Being nervous is a natural reaction in the body, no magic potion necessary! I encourage you to think of ways you can make full use of it by changing the way you view every situation around you.