Tame The Mental Butterflies

Getting rid of the jitters and preparing your mind for competition is just as important as working on a strong physical body

By Aubrey Newland, PhD

Great athletes recognize that success in competition is built on both physical and mental foundations. The physical component is usually the focus of sport preparation. Athletes go to practice and spend hours perfecting their craft. However, the mental side of sports is often neglected. With a little guidance and some practical tips, anyone can use mental tools to improve sport performance.

All of us have experienced the nervous fluttering and churning in our stomach prior to important competitions. Our bodies naturally react to what our minds know is the big game or race with increased muscle tension, sweaty palms or butterflies. “Oh no,” we may think, “I’m nervous and may not be ready.”

Actually, the feeling of butterflies isn’t the issue. It’s the interpretation of the feeling that matters most. Jack Donohue, a Canadian Olympic basketball coach, says, “It’s not a case of getting rid of the butterflies, it’s a question of getting them to fly in formation.”

How can we get the butterflies to facilitate our performance rather than inhibit our performance? Here are a few thoughts on how to harness the butterflies.

See It Happen

Feeling nervous often comes from the unknown. 

Athletes can use imagery to create experiences in their minds ahead of time before the experiences actually happen in the moment of competition. This allows athletes a sense of comfort with the situation when it actually occurs. Simply put, if you have already imagined it, the comfort level increases.

“I am a big believer in visualization. I run my races mentally so I feel even more prepared,” says United States Olympic track gold medalist Allyson Felix. 

Imagining success before it happens is a powerful tool. An athlete must use more than a visual exercise to create a powerful image. In order to make the imagery most useful, it should incorporate sights, sounds, smells, emotions, kinesthetic feelings and even the sense of touch.

Prior to competition, wheelchair athletes should imagine:

   1) Successful performances such as being on the podium, receiving a trophy or celebrating with the team

    2) Specific techniques such as free throws, controlling the chair around the track corners in a race or punching the push-rim on the chair to accelerate in a race

   3) Reactions to potential adversity such as a poor call from a referee, falling out of your chair/tipping over or falling behind early in a race or game.

Talk To Yourself

Using positive self-talk is another way that athletes can deal with anxious feelings.

Self-talk is the continuous stream of thoughts that we experience. It’s a running dialogue in our heads. The power of self-talk is simple but also very real. Actions are driven by thoughts.

“It’s not what we say out loud that determines our lives. It’s what we whisper to ourselves that has the most power,” writes Robert T. Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad’s Guide to Investing. “Words form thoughts, thoughts form realities and realities become life.” 

What do you say to yourself before your competition begins? Some athletes are great at harnessing their thoughts and making them a positive contributor to performance. Others aren’t so good at it. Here are a few tips for making self-talk work for you. 

First, recognize what you’re telling yourself. Awareness is the baseline because if you don’t know what you’re saying, you won’t know how to change it. Before, during and after competitions or practices, make mental notes of the thoughts you have. Write them down somewhere. Over the course of a few days or a week, you may start to notice patterns of self-talk depending on the situation (pressure-filled or
relaxed), context (practice or competition) or your mood. 

Second, if you believe your self-talk is negative, rephrase your thoughts to something more positive.  One way to do this is to use the word “yet.” An athlete might tell herself, “I can’t do this,” but with the simple addition of the word “yet,” it becomes a statement infused with hope — “I can’t do this yet, but with practice I will master it.”

Another way of rephrasing negative thoughts is to dispute irrational ones. Sometimes, athletes are especially critical of their performance, and they might say things like, “I’m horrible at this,” or “I am a failure.” It’s likely these are an exaggeration of the truth in a negative context. Disputing these irrational thoughts might include saying something like, “I’m not horrible. I have skills that allow me to compete at a high level.” If an athlete says, “I’m a failure,” the argument against that might include recalling previous awards or successes. 

Third, create a positive mantra to fight off negative thoughts. A positive mantra should be something simple and direct. Short phrases are best and should be a positive self-statement that inspires and uplifts the athlete, such as “I’m strong”, “I’m prepared” or “I’m confident.”

Something that’s easily remembered can be more powerful than a complex phrase that takes a lot of work to remember. Try something like, “Stamina and skill help me seal the deal.” Rhyming phrases also help with recall. Remember, what’s most important in creating a personal mantra is that it’s simple, positive and meaningful to you.

Set A Routine

Elite athletes usually follow a routine in preparation for competitions. It might include a specific warm-up, listening to certain music and getting dressed in a uniform. Following a routine is also a form of mental preparation.

When athletes go through a routine, they’re comfortable. This sense of comfort helps to relieve tension and anxiety prior to competition. In addition to the actual physical actions of a routine, it’s important to be mentally going through a routine, as well. When you see professional athletes going through a consistent routine, it’s likely they’re also going through their mental preparation.

Park your thoughts at the door. Arriving at the competition venue should be a time to mentally transition from the rest of life into competition mode. This means setting aside life’s worries. Having a mental image of a parked car full of all the thoughts and concerns of life may provide a way to do this.

Athletes should remind themselves that all of the details of their life will still be there after the competition. Bringing in extra thoughts, such as a fight with a family member, financial stress or even the excitement of a new, upcoming adventure, can be distracting. Park these thoughts at the door to the arena, locker room or gym.

Consistency is key. Routines are helpful if they’re consistent. This is important not only physically but also mentally. During a pre-competition warmup, choose to mentally review the strategies you want to use. Spend time in the locker room listening to music that gets you ready, and use this time to pump your mind full of positive self-statements. While getting dressed into your uniform, think of your goals for the game.

Whatever your physical routine is, connect the doing with the thinking. Allowing your mind to wander during your physical routine can cause inconsistencies in your performance.

Practice These Tools

Each of these tools is useful only to the extent that they’re practiced regularly.

Trying imagery, creating a mantra or going through a routine just one time isn’t going to have the effect you want. Just like learning new skills in sports, it takes time to develop these mental skills. With sufficient practice, things become automatic.

Start with one of these mental tools and practice it regularly. The mental side of competition is a battle that many people neglect. By putting time into developing your mental tools, you’ll be able to squeeze out every ounce of athletic potential you have and, ultimately, become a better athlete. 

Aubrey Newland, PhD, is a professor of sport and exercise psychology at California State University, Chico, in California.

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