Lately I have worked a lot of my technique and have found amazing improvements to my training. Now I have another problem, I am not a great competitor. So I have gone out and done some research to determine some methods in order to perform better under pressure.
Many athletes find it hard to focus their attention to the task at hand and find that they get “wrapped” up in the moment and negative thoughts overwhelm the individual. Anxiety comes from the feeling of nervousness that affects a person when they are threatened. The most common example is the “fight or flight” response. Heart rate increases and the extra stimulation cause the nerves to increase the action potentials (signals) to the muscles and that causes the jitteriness or shaking. If you can control the heart rate then you can control the arousal of the muscle, to a greater degree at least. Like anything it is not perfect. Increased heart rate at competition is usually not because you are in danger like the “flight or fright” response is usually associated with but rather because your ego is in jeopardy. It has been shown that those who are competitors are looking for recognition from a crowd and if you are not confident in your ability to amaze them then you will get nervous. No one wants to fall off a trampoline or off a pommel horse in front of thousands of people of course. The key component here is confidence. If you have not put enough numbers in at the gym or at practice then the chances of you being nervous and potentially performing worse increases. Assuming you are a normal athlete you probably never feel ready for a competition and nerves always play a small role during the big game..what can you do?
1) Breathing Technique:
At the time before you are about to compete breath in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, breath out for three seconds and hold for three seconds. This action has two effects. (1) It takes your mind temporarily away from the crowd and distracts you from potential negative thoughts. (2) It slows your heart rate subconsciously due to a regulated breathing pattern. The body is a unit and if you can control one part you can train the rest of your body to “catch up” and you can control all your body processes. This is the idea behind Chi and all these meditations that are really popular. I do not know if all that stuff works but do some research.
2) Focus on your stomach:
No, I do not mean stuff your face with oreos right before you compete, I mean physically think about your belly button and try to focus all your attention on it. This is another focusing method used to distract the body enough to calm the nerves. It won’t last for ever however. Like the breathing techniques, it only works as long as you do it and once you start thinking about your negative possible outcomes your heart rate will increase again.
3) Stop Sign
Visualize your routine and everytime you catch yourself thinking negatively about it imagine a stop sign. Go back start again. Keep doing this until you can image entire routines without any negative possibilities. This does not mean you will never have a bad competition it just reinforces the fact you actually are confident about what you are about to throw infront of the judges. This is a training method, and will not simply work 5 minutes before the competition like the above methods. Practice this at home for even 10 minutes a day and see how high you can get without one possible negative thought. It is not that easy if you are being honest and actually stop yourself at every “but what if”.
4) Muscle relaxation:
This exercise can be done before competition or at home on a regular basis. What you are attempting to do is visualize everybody segment you have. (hands, feet, arm, neck etc) Squeeze each muscle you can visualize for 5-7 seconds and then relax it. Do this for every body part and then squeeze the entire body as one unit. This helps to re-start the impulses to the nerves like how a de-fibrillation jump starts a heart. You are also tiring out the muscle ever so slightly as to slow their action potential. This can also help people get to sleep before competition as well.
5) Do not watch the competition or the scores
Studies show that athletes who are focusing on external rewards rather then self accomplishment tend to be more prone to anxiety. If you do not know what you scored even on a good routine or bad routine then you still have a 50/50 chance of being happy. The alternative is that you look and see you got slightly lower and that usually brings down the mood especially if you believe it was a good routine. If you did a bad routine it only reinforces you did a bad routine. So mathematically your chances of seeing something you do not want to see is 75% and only you only have a 25% chance of seeing that scores after a certain routine that actually give you more confidence. (a good routine followed by surprisingly high scores). You may not want to take the chance of setting yourself up for disappointment.
As well, do not watch the competition because if other people do well then it will affect your mood and you may get more anxious thinking “ oh no I really have to do well now” and that will increase the pressure and increase your heart rate and so forth. Not knowing what people do has the same effect as above and an internal motivation to do a good routine is what drives you rather then external gratification. Surprisingly it is hard to not look, naturally you want to know what you are up against. Try to walk away from the competition venue if you have the chance. What I do at national and international competitions is go to the warm up gym and put some music in my ears. This way I cannot hear the crowd reaction which will give away the performance of the other athletes.
6) Imagine the next competition
Some do not agree with this and that is fine but I find that if I am nervous at the current event thinking about future competitions where I hope to do even better routines helps me get excited for competition rather than nervous. This does not work as well for the first routine but may help you pull through the second and third routine.
Doing small repetitions of a low to moderate intensity exercise can help distract from the anxiety, keep the muscles warm as well as give you a little boost of power in that muscle group. It has been shown that doing some squats or push ups before a competition ( 1 hour prior to +- 30 min) gets the muscle ready for competition. The heavier the load the more potential energy your body is ready to release at competition time ( with a limit of course) but please do not overexert yourself. Only a few reps with large intervals. You are maintaining heart rate and warmth not spiking it then decreasing it in large amounts. Brief low intensity exercises right before competition every few minutes and moderate to high intensity ( 5-6 reps) an hour or so before competition. This of course is assuming you have the equipment available so it may not work at every competition but at least you have other methods to help you.
With all that said the best anxiety suppressor is good training habits. Not many of us have good training habits every time we work out and that is where some of these methods come to the rescue sometimes but no matter how much you do the above, if you cannot do a full routine at home then your chances are very slim that you will make it at competition.
There are not any foods out there that will slow down heart rate acutely due to the fact the digestive system does not affect the nervous system upon digestion. Some foods have been noted to help decrease fast heart rates but this is more of a long term effect based on other physiological changes such as artery clearance and weight loss and has nothing to do with the nerves.
As well, there are drugs over the counter and available to general populations that will slow down heart rate but again most of these are not for small bouts of competition and are long term effects for heart rate in diseased populations. As well you do not want to take these to attempt to slow heart rate because they are illegal in all sports and will get you banned.
I hope that answers some questions that help some athletes’ out there that are like myself and find it hard to get your nerves under control. Please do not just throw it in before a competition. Practice all of these at home for best effects.