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It's Okay to be Nervous

May 18, 2004 04:38 PM

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (athletesperformance.com)

One of the myths of sports is that great athletes don't get nervous. There they are, performing in huge stadiums on live television before world audiences. They have every reason to be emotional wrecks, but they appear to be calm, cool, and collected.

They are not. They get just as nervous before and during competition as the rest of us. "I get nervous," admits former Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux, considered by those who watch and hit against him to be one of the coolest of all big league athletes. "But it's okay. Getting nervous is part of the game." In fact, it's so much a part of the game that some coaches worry when their athletes don't get nervous before an event.

Tennis players and other world class athletes experience a temporary case of the nerves, but they have learned how to handle their emotions in ways that don't hinder performance. In some cases, great athletes use performance anxiety to gain an advantage over their opponents.

Avoidance and Panic
Shane Murphy, Ph.D., author of The Achievement Zone, observes two big problems associated with nerves — avoidance and panic. "Time and time again I see athletes who avoid stressful situations or who panic when the pressure is on.

"Those who use avoidance are great practice and drill players, but are reluctant to compete. Others compete, but are not very comfortable or effective against certain athletes or teams."

Most athletes are in the group that likes to compete, but gets nervous about doing it. Murphy lists these characteristics of a nervous panic: 1) you can't remember what you're supposed to do or how to do it; 2) your mind begins to race; 3) you feel out of control; 4) you make bad decisions; or 5) you rush through a performance. The heart rate speeds up, the rate of breathing increases, and the muscles get tense.

Murphy teaches his client/athletes to use one of six relaxation strategies, all of which involve specific, detailed instructions and practice sessions too comprehensive to describe here. They include:

  • deep breathing (taking regular, deep breaths prior to a performance)
  • muscle relaxation (reducing tension in major muscle groups by tightening them, then relaxing)
  • centering (refocusing, recovering, calming down)
  • visualization (seeing yourself perform a skill well)
  • autogenic training (getting your body to respond to suggestions)
  • coping affirmations (talking yourself through a stressful situation).

Expect It
"The secret to dealing with nervousness is to expect it," advises Murphy. "It is very normal to get nervous in competition or when you are being evaluated during training. By practicing the relaxation strategies, you will realize that your nervousness can help you concentrate more sharply, react faster, and give you more energy when you need it."

Murphy thinks that each athlete can decide which of the techniques works best for him or her. After eight weeks of training, one group of athletes was able to decrease its performance anxiety by 30 percent and to improve performance. Murphy also encourages a shortened form of deep breathing and centering for those situations during competition when there is not time to complete an entire sequence of relaxation techniques.

But Murphy's basic message is that it is normal for athletes to get nervous. Expect the jitters and prepare for them by practicing one or more of the relaxation techniques just as you practice tennis skills.

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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