Getting Your Butterflies in Formation: Embracing Pre-Game Nerves as Your Ally

coaching mental skills training mindset Feb 04, 2024

Have you ever felt your heart racing before a big game or performance? That rush of energy, sweaty palms, maybe even a bit of jitteriness? Often, we label these sensations as 'nervousness,' but what if I told you that these feelings could actually be your secret weapon for success? In this article, we’ll explore why our body sends us these signals and why it’s important to recognize these pre-game jitters as helpful, especially in competitive settings.


The Autonomic Nervous System and Competition Preparation

First things first, let’s talk about the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This part of your body is like a behind-the-scenes manager, controlling things you don't consciously think about, like your heartbeat and breathing. When you're gearing up for a competition or a performance, your ANS kicks into high gear, prepping your body for action. This is often referred to as the 'fight or flight' response. This response is a natural reaction that boosts alertness, energy, and focus. Far from being a bad thing, this response can actually enhance your performance by making you more alert and ready to take on whatever challenge you may face.


The Misinterpretation of Physiological Activation

The challenge is that we often label this response as negative. But why? The rapid heartbeat, the butterflies in our stomach, the sweating – these are typical signs of what we call 'nervousness’, however people frequently misinterpret these signs as negative signals, believing these sensations indicate they're unprepared for the upcoming challenge.

This misconception often arises from connecting these physical reactions to past experiences of underperformance. Instead of recognizing these symptoms as the body's natural way of preparing for action, there's a tendency to view them as forewarnings of another potential setback, resulting in doubt over their readiness and ability. Unfortunately, this negative framing can impact our performance, and actually make us more prone to mistakes.

When we label our heightened state as negative, a variety of physiological and psychological reactions occur that can impair performance. They include:

  1. Increased Muscle Tension: The brain, perceiving a threat, releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This response is designed for quick, powerful actions, but in non-life-threatening situations like performance or competition, it results in excessive muscle tension. This tension reduces the efficiency of movements, impacting coordination and agility.
  2. Narrowing of Focus: Heightened arousal levels engage the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in emotional processing, which signals a state of alert. This can lead to a hyper-focus on perceived threats or negative outcomes, causing an individual to overlook other relevant information in their environment, such as important cues. This narrowed focus decreases an individual’s ability to adapt in the moment.
  3. Impaired Decision Making: Under stress, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-order thinking and decision-making, becomes less effective. The flood of stress hormones affects its ability to process information and weigh options accurately, leading to decreased decision-making.
  4. Emotional Overwhelm: Excessive arousal can overwhelm the brain's emotional regulation circuits, particularly in the limbic system. This overwhelm can escalate to panic, making it difficult to maintain composure and perform tasks that require concentration and precision. The ability to stay calm under pressure is crucial for optimal performance, and emotional overwhelm can significantly impact this capability.
  5. Energy Depletion: The sustained activation of the body's stress response demands a significant amount of energy. A constant readiness to act depletes energy reserves faster than usual, leading to premature fatigue. This energy depletion not only affects physical stamina but also cognitive functions, reducing overall performance capacity.

These negative effects demonstrate why it’s not just the arousal itself, but our interpretation of it that matters. Viewing these physiological changes as harmful can set off a chain reaction that ultimately hinders performance and reinforces the belief that we were not prepared for the challenge.


Rethinking the ‘Nervous’ in Nervousness: A Gateway to Focus and Flow

But what if the sensations we often label as nervousness were actually the key to unlocking our highest potential? Psychological and neuroscientific research have shown that a certain level of arousal is not just beneficial but necessary for achieving high levels of performance. It is this heightened state that serves as a crucial catalyst for both mental and physical readiness, and one that sets the stage for entering flow. Flow, which is a state characterized by complete immersion in the activity, heightened enjoyment, and a sense of effortlessness, is often the pinnacle of athletic and artistic performance (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 1999).

This perspective shifts the narrative around pre-performance arousal, viewing it not as a barrier but as an essential element of success. Top athletes and performers have mastered leveraging this 'nervous energy' to enhance focus and execution rather than succumb to it. This heightened activation, unique to each individual and situation, can turn a potentially overwhelming experience into a significant advantage, and it is the positive reinterpretation of these physiological cues that encourages us to see our body's natural response as an ally in our pursuit of excellence.  


Top 3 Steps to Embrace Pre-Game Jitters

So, how can you start seeing these feelings as helpful rather than harmful? Let's break it down into some practical steps:

  1. Recognize and Embrace the Arousal: Understand that the physical sensations associated with nervousness—like a racing heart and sweating—are your body’s natural preparation for peak performance. Acknowledge these feelings as indicators of readiness and excitement, not fear and uncertainty. This recognition helps reframe your perspective, seeing arousal as an ally for high level of performance.
  2. Personalize Your Arousal Management Strategy: Since the optimal level of arousal varies individually, experiment with different techniques to discover what best channels this nervous energy into focused performance. This could involve visualization, establishing a pre-performance routine with music or warm-ups, or any activity that calms or energizes you.
  3. Build Proactive Confidence: Proactively build your confidence by reviewing your past accomplishments, reviewing your mental and physical preparation, and positive feedback. Keep a record of your sources of confidence and review them consistently to remind yourself of your capabilities, reinforcing your self-assurance and readiness to face challenges head-on.


By integrating these steps into your pre-game preparations, you're not just managing pre-performance jitters; you're actively transforming them into a catalyst for achieving your very best. This shift in perspective, from viewing arousal as an obstacle to embracing it as a necessary step, is fundamental in reaching new levels of athletic performance. Also, remember, like any skill, it takes practice. But with intention and effort, you can turn what once seemed like a barrier into your greatest ally.



Are you ready to rise above the competition and take your performance to the next level?


Click here  to learn more about The Athlete's Mental Blueprint, a science-backed training for developing mental toughness.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row.
Harris, D. J., Vine, S. J., & Wilson, M. R. (2017). Neurocognitive mechanisms of the flow state. Progress in Brain Research, 234, 221-243.
Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports. Human Kinetics.
Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2018). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (7th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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