Nerves! It wouldn’t be gameday without them. Nerves are entirely normal – they show that we care. But they do have the ability to negatively affect our performance if we don’t address them effectively.
From my experience as a coach and a player, here are some strategies to combat those game-day nerves.
As a coach:
So as a coach, it’s important to ask yourself: what helps calm a player’s nerves? To know how, you have to know what they need. Every player is different and responds to different things. Some players need energy and motivation – a simple “You got this!” could suffice. Some perform well when they are riled up and angry. And then there are players who respond best with focused instructions to take their mind off their anxiety. I fall into the last category. When I had nerves, my coaches knew to give me a specific cue. It could be something like “move your feet when you pass”, or reviewing the strategy we had discussed earlier. Whatever the player’s needs are, it’s important to have that insight as a coach. Some players know what they need and can communicate their preference. With other players, you might have to do some trial and error to figure it out yourself. Either way, a good post-game practice is to ask your player if the strategy was effective in calming their nerves.
As an athlete:
And now as a player… to tell you the truth, I had nerves at every single game. Sometimes my nerves got so high that my hands would physically shake. The first step in making sure my nerves didn’t translate into full-blown anxiety was to acknowledge them. Recognizing your state of high emotions can help you transform your nerves into energy. What often worked for me was shifting gears, leaving my nervous mindset into one of gratitude. In those days, my internal dialogue would sound something like this:
“Okay, I definitely have nerves. But I have them because I care. I don’t have to be out here on the court, I GET to be out here on the court. I am so grateful. And I know I put in the work, I have the talent, my teammates and coaches believe in me. I’m just gonna enjoy the game and focus on the task at hand”.
This wasn’t a fool-proof method, but it almost always helped.
This was the sentiment I would express to my teammates, to try to instill some of that confidence and gratitude in them too. The conversation I have with myself isn’t necessarily applicable to everyone, but by adjusting the tone and words to the person I was talking to, I would be able to focus our nervous energy into competition.
Nerves aren’t something we can completely brush off in an instant. But we can work to manage their effects on our performance, to even boost our performance! It’s all about finding the right approach for each specific athlete, playing to their strengths and styles to allow the nerves to propel them, not pull them down.