There has been a significant stigma around being nervous in sports for many years and how nervousness equals weakness or anxiety will cause a drop in performance.
Nervousness can negatively affect your performance if not dealt with or used positively. Nervousness can be a positive emotion/feeling to help enhance your performance on game day. Focusing on the task at hand, breathing deeply and not shallowly, having a good routine, and many more.
Remember that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and doing big scary things like competing is something great, and it’s very typical to feel nervous before these events.
Is It Normal To Be Nervous Before A Fight?
Being nervous before a fight should not be seen as a negative emotion. You can use those nerves to enhance performance. Being able to use those nerves as a positive emotion to help boost your adrenaline and get you psyched up is something every athlete should take advantage of.
However, suppose you are an athlete who gets so nervous that you feel numb, tired, lethargic, or vice versa. You may get so anxious that your heart rate increases too fast, you feel overly psyched up, your hands start shaking, and you have a whole bunch of thoughts rushing through your mind.
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Those athletes who get over-aroused or under-aroused when in a competition setting should work on getting their nervousness to a point where it can enhance their performance and not hinder their performance.
Research also shows that emotions that could seem negative are not always going to affect your athletic performance in a negative way and vice versa; positive feelings such as self-confidence or being happy are not always beneficial for all performers .
Over the past decade, there has been an increased focus on stress and coping in sport psychology research. Previous studies have shown that sport has the potential to be extremely stressful and the need to cope with this stress efficiently is an integral part of elite sports performance .
The Inverted U Theory states that we have an optimal arousal level. Your “Arousal Level” is your state of readiness and refers to your physical, emotional, and mental state.
In simple terms, it measures your internal energy level (often referred to as butterflies). It includes psychological (anger, confidence, fear, nervousness, aggression, etc.) and physiological (pulse, breathing, temperature, etc.) elements .
Is stress or nervousness a good thing or a bad thing? In my opinion, it can be an excellent thing. If you let the nerves overwhelm you to a point where your performance drops, or you feel so nervous it debilitates you, you need to work on using those nerves as a positive emotion, not a negative one.
Here is why stress can be good (you should never perceive pre-game stress as a life-or-death situation). Stress can help you perform better if channeled correctly. Finding out where you perform best on the inverted U theory continuum can also make a huge difference in your performance.
If you are an athlete that gets tired and sleepy when you get nervous, doing some pre-fight uplifting/energizing activity to help psych you up can help you get fight-ready and vice versa.
If you get so scared and psyched up to a point where you end up wasting valuable energy that should be used on the mat or ring, doing mental or physical exercises to help bring your nerves down can help enhance your performance.
Knowing where you perform best will take some awareness from your side to figure out where you sit on that continuum. Some athletes need to learn if they need to be psyched up or down. Or even where their nervousness stems from.
Keep a journal of some sort, and note if you are getting nervous in training and what could be triggering it. For example, you might get nervous when the coach puts you on the spot to fight, or you might be fighting an opponent with more experience than you or bigger, etc.
These could all be triggers. But, being aware of what triggers your nervousness can be a valuable tool in helping you overcome that nervousness.
The same goes for competition. Making it a post-competition routine to check in with yourself or your coach, talking about or writing down your feelings can help you dive deep into why you are feeling these feelings and, most importantly, what could be triggering them.
Once you have an idea, you can also start making notes to see if the nerves are hindering or enhancing your performance.
Some athletes feel butterflies when nervous, which can be used to their advantage as increased adrenaline to perform at their best. That is why it’s essential to be aware of when your nerves are helping you perform better or decreasing your performance because it becomes debilitating.
Being nervous or even excited, which can sometimes feel like the same feeling, means you care (It’s something that is important to you). So being nervous doesn’t necessarily mean you are not ready or you are mentally weak.
However, in saying all of this, if you are not prepared, or you are put into a stressful situation that you might not have expected, or your opponent has more strength or skills than you expected, or even you might be behind in points, then yes, those nerves are a sign of not being fully ready.
If you go into training or competition knowing you have done everything you can to prepare for it, using the pre-competition nerves to help you perform better will tremendously help your performance.
Every athlete has to individually work on how to use their stress to their advantage; this takes some mental preparation and creating consistent habits in training. Knowing the stressors that negatively affect you is also vital, as well as knowing when to focus on the controllable and the uncontrollable stressors.
Uncontrollable stressors at or before a competition could include things like the weather, the venue where you are competing, the crowd, etc.
Controllable stressors include how you have prepared, your thoughts, ensuring all your gym gear is packed, etc.
How To Calm Pre-Fight Nervousness & Anxiety
Listen To Music (Preferably Calm Music)
Listening to music is very athlete depended. You don’t necessarily have to listen to calm music, but more so whatever relaxes you and doesn’t make you feel more anxious than you already are.
Experiment in training with what types of music work for you. I always recommend creating a playlist that is easily accessible beforehand.
Control of your breathing can help you calm your nerves during stressful events. It helps you feel grounded, more relaxed and focused when your breathing is regulated. When you become anxious, your breathing typically becomes shallow, increasing your heart rate and making you feel panicky, which we want to avoid.
What has worked for me as an athlete and my Sport Psychology athletes is breathing in with your nose (counting to 4) and then releasing breathing out with your mouth for a count of 4.
These deep breaths also help take your mind off whatever is making you nervous and have you focus on the task at hand, which is your breathing.
Doing light stretching, mobility, or even yoga beforehand can help calm your nerves. Combining stretching with meditation is an excellent way to lower your heart rate and feel more in control of the situation.
Doing high-intensity work right before your competition or any activity that raises your heart rate even more than the present anxiousness can be detrimental to your sport, however. I recommend saving that energy for the warm-up right before your fight if you need to get more psyched.
Journalling has become very popular over the last few years, especially gratitude journalling, which has significantly impacted how you perceive things.
Whenever you think the world is against you and you always get dealt the worse card, writing down what you are grateful for in your life makes you realize that things aren’t always all bad.
Another way to use journaling is to write down your thoughts and feelings, which is an excellent way of putting what you are feeling on paper. Sometimes, seeing what you think on paper puts things into perspective much better.
Suppose you have been battling with training or negative thoughts in training or competition. In that case, a great way to deal with the stress or anxiousness is to write down your thoughts and feelings immediately post-training while the feelings are still fresh.
Dealing with stress or anxiety will be much easier once you know the trigger. You need to be aware of when you feel these feelings and what has changed around you to cause these feelings.
Often we feel nervous and anxious due to our thoughts and a perceived threat, not a real threat. And we make things bigger or worse in our minds than they are.
Journalling down your negative thoughts or worries and then rephrasing them with positive affirmations can help the narrative in your head help you instead of making you feel even more nervous.
Inking what you think can be a great outlet to help you keep calm pre-fight. Josh Fletcher covers journaling practices from the special forces in his podcast appearance below:
Going For A Walk
Sometimes just removing yourself from a particular environment can be an instant stress reliever. If it’s available to you, going for a slow walk, preferably with no phone, and just focusing on the present moment, taking in what’s around you, and just being mindful of your thoughts can help keep you calm before a fight.
I have been in a pre-fight competition setting where my anxiety started taking over. What helped me a lot was walking around in a quiet space for 5-10 minutes, focusing on my breathing, and saying some positive affirmations to help me calm down and get focused on my upcoming event.
Meditation is another mental skill that has become very popular in recent years. Meditation is another skill that takes time and practice. Still, once you have mastered this skill, it can make a tremendous difference, especially when dealing with stress or anxiety.
Meditation works by letting your thoughts come and go without focusing on one specific thought; you can, however, focus on your breathing; this will help your anxiety by making you feel less anxious, freeing your mind of all thoughts, and just concentrating on the present moment.
If your thoughts are making you nervous, then being able to let go of those thoughts and being present in the current moment can help you perform at your best without letting your thoughts be detrimental to your performance.
If you are feeling stressed or anxious, being able to visualize something positive can go a long way in helping you keep calm. Visualization is best described as closing your eyes and using all of your senses, including; seeing, hearing, feeling, touching, and smelling.
Imagining something and using your senses can help trick your brain into believing your imagination is reality. Being able to trick your brain can help an athlete overcome a lot of mental blocks and help build confidence as well.
Another way visualization can help your performance when you are feeling nervous or anxious is by closing your eyes for a few minutes and saying a positive affirmation. Imagine yourself in a happy place (this could be with a loved one, at the beach, or wherever your happy place might be).
Visualization should be individualized to the athlete. Find what works for you, and keep practicing it when feeling nervous.
A routine will create good habits that can lower anxiety and help you keep calm, knowing you have done the things in your control before your fight.
For some athletes, this could be waking up at a particular time, having a specific breakfast, listening to their favorite music, packing their gym gear or fight gear, and making sure they are fully prepared for their fight.
Your routine should be individualized to you, which is there to help keep you relaxed and focused.
Routines help you feel organized and ready for the task at hand, training, competing, etc. It’s also a great way to set yourself up for success, knowing you have done what’s in your control and not have to stress on game day about forgetting anything or not being ready, etc.
Routines help you feel calmer, which means you can use that energy for your competition performance.
Plan a routine that is doable for you before competitions and start practicing that routine in training already so that it’s not the first time you do it on game day. We want to eliminate stress and not add to it.
How To Stay Calm During A Fight
Focusing On The Task At Hand
When our mind is focusing on many different things, it takes away from what we are currently doing. For example, you are in a fight and think about the next fight already, or you think about things your coach said or something that may be bothering you.
These distractions can take away your focus and ultimately lead to you making mistakes and losing a fight that could have been a win.
Making sure the second you step on the mat or ring, you are solely focusing on the task at hand and doing what you have been preparing for will give you the best chance of success.
You might have one or two cues or even an affirmation in your thoughts that could help boost your confidence or focus, but do your best to be fully mindful and present when you start your fight.
Being mindful and focused will also help you stay calm because you will not be distracted by anything outside your control. If you are behind in points, regather yourself, refocus and get back into it.
“Letting Go” Technique
If, however, you do get distracted in your fight or your opponent says something to you; or they are faster than expected, they may catch you off guard with a punch or takedown. The “letting go” technique is something I use with my athletes to help them let go of what currently happened, regather themselves and refocus.
The letting go technique is something again which can be made very individual to the athlete. For example, your opponent throws a combination, and one of the punches connects and might even rattle you a bit.
Your letting go technique might be breathing deeply in and out twice, saying to yourself, “I am ready for you,” and then hitting your gloves together twice.
Find out what works for you and make it something you will remember when you lose focus to help you get back on track and back to being focused on the task at hand. Breathing is also a great way to help you stay calm when a situation makes you anxious.
I am a big advocate for doing breathing exercises when you are feeling anxious. Breathing slowly and deeply through your nose and out by your mouth is a great way to calm yourself if you are feeling tense and nervous and breathing shallowly.
Shallow, fast breaths will increase your heart rate and could even lead to small or big panic attacks, which could be detrimental to your performance.
As soon as you feel overly anxious, take some deep breaths to help combat that negative feeling before it gets worse. Being calm in a fight with also help you feel more confident and focused. Being calm makes you feel relaxed, and you want to be able to react fast in a fight.
Practice breathing techniques in training or sparring sessions the next time you feel anxious. Find what works for you and add that to your mental skills toolbox.
The way you talk to yourself is essential in high-stress situations. Find a few words or phrases that are positive and uplifting. When you feel anxious or stressed, remind yourself of these phrases to help you stay calm and focused.
I used to tell myself, “eye of the tiger,” and as cliché as that sounds, if you have watched the Rocky movies, this helped me feel confident, calm, and ready to do what I do best.
It would be best if you practiced self-talk, practice saying uplifting and confident words or phrases to yourself. If you are scared you will forget the phrase, write it in your journal, in your changing room between fights, on your water bottle, on your arm, or even on your gloves.
Put it somewhere where you can be constantly reminded of this word or phrase. Say it to yourself over and over until you believe it.
Reminding or telling yourself in a stressful event that this is not a life or death situation. Have fun and remind yourself that it is your time to showcase what you have been working on.
Being nervous is a normal emotion to feel before a fight or competition. What matters most is how you use that nervousness to your advantage. Being nervous means, you care because this is very important to you, plus you are pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, which is always scary.
Nerves before competition can either make you perform well when used correctly or completely debilitate you and make you feel numb and skillless when you walk into that ring/mat.
You can use many techniques to help calm your nerves before or even during your competition, and you don’t have to do all of them. Just use the ones that relate to you and practice them beforehand. The brain is a muscle that needs to be trained the same way as your physical skills, so practice these mental skills beforehand in a training session to help you be fully prepared for game day.
1. Hanin, Y. L. (2010). Coping with anxiety in sport. Coping in sport: Theory, methods, and related constructs, 159, 175.
2. Neil, R., Hanton, S., Mellalieu, S. D., & Fletcher, D. (2011). Competition stress and emotions in sport performers: The role of further appraisals. Psychology of sport and exercise, 12(4), 460-470.
3. Krane, V. (1992). Conceptual and methodological considerations in sport anxiety research: From the inverted-U hypothesis to catastrophe theory. Quest, 44(1), 72-87.