Posted 3 weeks ago

Mental skills training for competitive nerves

If you’ve ever taken part in any sports or performed anything (dance, music, singing, …) in front of an audience or crowd, it’s likely you’ll be familiar with experiencing some degree of competitive nerves or anxiety.

Competitive anxiety looks like, and is experienced as, a stressful situation which leads to a combination of mental processes (thoughts around worry) as well as physiological processes (tension, elevated heart rate), which can modify behaviour.

However, not all competitive anxiety is bad: in fact, how we perceive its utility can influence how it affects us, and our degree of perceived control will impact upon this interpretation. That is, some athletes feel that a little bet of pre-performance nervousness is not such a bad thing, whereas for others it can feel quite debilitating.

There are a variety of psychological tools and interventions that have been shown to be useful in helping athletes and performers reduce or better manage their competitive anxiety when they find it to be unhelpful. Although these have not been researched in the context of bodybuilding, the evidence would suggest that implementing these mental skills, and training these mental skills as a bodybuilder would have a helpful impact upon your competitive anxiety, and as a result, on your performance and enjoyment of the sport and show day.

Therefore, in this article, my aim is to discuss three techniques that seem to have a moderate to large effect on managing competitive anxiety, and to provide you with some tips on their implementation to maximise your mental performance game on stage.

The power of self-talk
It is widely accepted that our thoughts affect our feelings, which in turn affects our behaviour – therefore, it should be no surprise to know that your self-talk can affect your competitive anxiety.

Think about it: you’re scrolling on Instagram, and you happen to be looking up the # pertaining to your show. Then, you see someone who you think looks better than you. This thought might then lead you to feel inadequate, and anxious about stepping on stage besides them. This could then affect your behaviour by getting you into a slump, and thinking that it’s not worth giving it the beanz in your next session because “I’ll never stand a chance anyway”. Then, not having trained as hard as you knew you could, will lead you to think that you’re not working as hard as others, which will exacerbate that feeling of anxiety, and potentially lead to some self-sabotage. Can you see how quickly self-talk can get in the way?

If you find that you get yourself trapped in unhelpful self-talk that is just making you more and more stressed about show day, here are a few steps I’d like you to take to help you reduce your competitive anxiety.

  • Attend to the situation in which these thoughts are showing up: when is it you fall into the trap of negative self-talk?
  • What is it about that self-talk that is increasing your competitive anxiety?
  • How is it making you feel, emotionally and physically?
  • If you were to hear that a friend was telling themselves these things, what would you perhaps suggest they replace that talk with?

Changing the tone of those unhelpful thoughts and considering how you may adapt them to be more supportive of your journey will not only reduce your stress in the moment, but it will also help you focus on the task at hand, increasing your assertiveness.

What we know is that anxiety sends us into our fight, flight or freeze mode – during prep, this might look like avoidance of ticking some boxes, developing a fear of failure and self-sabotaging our own journey, or not putting in as much work as we know we could so that we have something to blame should we not perform as expected. Practicing helpful self-talk during your prep will ensure that you perform to the best of your ability – the key then is that it reduces competitive anxiety by supporting you in doing everything you can to be your best possible self on stage.

If you are a competitor and find yourself feeling anxious about stepping on stage, these are the three key moments I’d like you to practice noticing and putting in encouraging self-talk:

  • In the morning when you check in
  • Ahead of your training and/or cardio session (and even during!)
  • When you are practicing your posing (it means you’re also likely to maintain this on stage!)

Visualisation and imagery
Having a vision is something bodybuilders talk about a lot, but here I’m not referring to an elusive idea of what we want to achieve. Here, I’m talking about using your powerful imagination to visualise exactly what your competitive experience is going to look like.

Visualisation and depicting clear images of what will be happening on show day is a great way to reduce competitive anxiety, because it enables you to walk through the situation in a step-by-step process and imagine yourself being in that situation.

“But Clara, I’ve never competed before / I’ve never competed with this federation / in this venue before. How can I visualise it if I don’t know what it will look like?”

Well, the good news is that visualisation isn’t so much about your surroundings, but it is more about you. Can you visualise how you’d like to be backstage? What would you like to be feeling and doing? What would looking “calm and ready” feel like? Can you visualise yourself standing on stage, going through your routine, nailing every pose? What do you want to be thinking? What do you want to be focusing on? Can you imagine yourself in your poses on stage? How does it feel?

These are the types of questions you can ask yourself to practice visualisation and imagery. They help with the reduction in competitive anxiety because they provide us with a mental image and an emotional sense of how we’d like to show up, i.e., not feeling anxious, and feeling confident.

To practice your visualisation and imagery, make sure you start by putting yourself in a physiologically calm state: take four deep belly breaths, breathing in and out for a count of four. Then, bring to mind your vision of how you’d like to show up – how do you know you are calm and not anxious in that moment? Think about the qualities you’d embody if that was the case for you.

Here are some key moments in which you could practice visualising yourself as calm, collected, and ready to give it your all on stage:

  • In the morning when you check in
  • When you practice your posing after training
  • When you’re lying in bed ready to fall asleep

Pre-performance routines
The final technique that could help you reduce your competitive anxiety is that of developing a pre-performance routine. We’re all familiar with sportspeople performing almost anal routines before they run onto the pitch or field, and it doesn’t have to be any different for bodybuilding/bodybuilders. The aim of this technique is to bring self-talk and visualisation together on the day, alongside some other tools, to get you ready to perform there and then.

In short, a pre-performance routine can help you get your game-face ready, which mean embodying qualities such as: strong, athletic, graceful and controlled. Ideally, you will work to create a pre-performance routine that helps you get into the right headspace when it comes to self-talk, and that helps you bring to mind that calm and collected character you want to bring into your stage performance. This is what you’d want to be thinking about or doing in the 20-30min lead up to stepping on stage, but in order for it to work, it’s worth practicing frequently.

Given that the goal of this technique is to help you perform at your best on stage, I would start to plan what this may look like when you’re 2-3 weeks out. Drill it and practice it before you do your first rounds of posing after your session, so it feels as “real” as possible (you haven’t warmed up and done 10x rounds already).

The length, type and style of your routine will vary and be dependent on personal qualities, but an example may include (but is not limited to):

  • Closing your eyes and playing 4-5 songs that embody your game face for you.
  • From there, you can start visualising yourself posing on stage, going through your moves, looking the best you have, and telling yourself that you are nailing it.
  • This should get you hyped up and excited to perform, without having that energy spill over into a sloppy show on stage – feel the energy and control it to pour it into your routine.

In summary, there are a variety of techniques that can help you manage your competitive anxiety when it comes to bodybuilding shows. A change in your self-talk can support you in focusing on helpful thoughts during your prep and on stage; similarly, if you have practiced visualising yourself and visualising how you want to feel on show day, it will be much easier to do so in the moment, when you’re backstage and it’s go-time. Finally, you can develop your own pre-performance routine which can help you get into your optimal state of excitement, confidence and calm.

Yes, it can feel a little bit cringey, but guess what? Nobody knows what you’re saying to yourself, what you’re seeing in your mind’s eye, and/or know what you’re working on – so you might as well be your own best supporter and use as much of the sport psychology evidence base as you can to maximise your mental and physical game on stage.

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS

References
Ford, J.L., Idelfonso, K., Jones, M.L., & Arvinen-Barrow, M. (2017). Sport-related anxiety: Current insights. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 8(1), 205-212.

Ong, N.C.H., & Chua, J.H.E. (2021). Effects of psychological interventions on competitive anxiety in sport: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Sport & Exercise, 52(1), 1-16.

Rice, S.M., Gwyther, K., Santesteban-Echarri, O., Baron, D., Gorczynski, P., Gouttebarge, V., Reardon, C.L., et al. (2019). Determinants of anxiety in elite athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 53(1), 722-730.

Thomas, O., Hanton, S., & Maynard, I. (2007). Anxiety responses and psychological skill use during the time leading up to competition: Theory to practice. International Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19(4), 379-397.