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Photo of athlete on track holding baton for Pregame Nerves Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

Tips for coping with pregame nerves – from 5 top athletes

Almost all people who have competed are familiar with the feeling of  nerves before the moment of competition, that slightly uneasy jitter that sits in the background of your consciousness as you warm up and prepare. It is a reminder that you care about the result and you want to do your best, it whispers constantly to you that this moment is significant. In the best case scenario, these pregame nerves help bring focus and urgency and just enough adrenaline to lift our performance. In the worst case, they cripple us, shaking our confidence and preventing us from being all we can be when it comes to the crunch.  

At most top level athletics competitions, there is a call room where the athletes wait just prior to their event. They wait together, until they are introduced to the crowd and head out. For some, they see this waiting time as an opportunity to dominate their competitors mentally, to stare them down, to let their fellow competitors see how ready they are for this. For others, it can be a time when nerves mount until they are overwhelmed by them. There have been occasions, at big events, when an athlete cannot stand the pressure of waiting in the call room and collapses in a heap of tears, unable to cope. It is the difference between those who can master their nerves and use them to their advantage, and those who cannot control their nerves or manage the pressure. 

Find what works for you with pregame nerves

In those crucial moments, it is about finding what works for you to keep those pregame nerves in check, enabling them to help push you on, not drag you down. It may be deep breathing, it may be reminding yourself of all the preparation you have done and all the successes you have had so far, it may be visualising your success in this event. It may be seeking the help of Someone greater than yourself in prayer. To pray and remind yourself that you do not face this situation alone, can be a huge help in reducing those nerves and giving you a wider perspective than just the pressure in that moment. 

Personally, I believe God to be ready, able and willing to reach out to us in those moments to comfort and strengthen us and there have been many times for me, when a quick word with Him have enabled me to overcome the pressure and play the way He created me to play. The key thing in those pre-competition, high pressure moments, is to not let them rob us of the enjoyment and fulfilment of competing to our full potential. Don’t let nerves and pressure become so great, that they destroy the joy that started you competing in the first place. 

Advice from elite athletes on pregame nerves

Michael Phelps: visualisation 

According to coach Bob Bowman, Phelps is an extraordinary visualiser. He would visualise the perfect race, and also everything that could go wrong and how he might respond.

“If my suit ripped or if my goggles broke, you know, what would I do?” Phelps says.

Because Phelps had already visualised and planned for every possibility, he approached his races feeling in control and prepared for anything.

Stephen Curry: routine

Curry uses routine to keep calm.

I don’t know what I’ll feel when I walk in the arena. There’s no preparing yourself for that. But, I’m going to have the same routine from the time I shoot around to the time I go home to the time I go to the game. That should hopefully be able to calm myself down. And once the game starts, your preparation should take over and you’ll be ready to go.


Michael Jordan: stay in the moment

Jordan found championship success by learning to take the game moment by moment.

I would tell players to relax and never think about what’s at stake. If you start to think about who is going to win the championship, then you’ve lost your focus.


Steve Gurney: confidence anchor

Multisport athlete Steve Gurney offers the following advice for pregame nerves:

  • Take full breaths
  • Step backwards in order to create distance between you and your nervous feeling. Understand that you’re not a nervous person, but you just have a nervous feeling.
  • Observe the nervous feeling without judgement.
  • Ask the feeling what its purpose is, and then thank it for giving the warning.
  • It’s okay and normal to talk to the feeling, you’re not going crazy.
  • Get a piece of paper and write notes about the outcome you’d like. 
  • What small step can you take right now? Take action.
  • Create a confidence anchor for a more useful state. This involves using a physical action to remind you of a past feeling of confidence. For example, you many hold your fingers in a certain way or put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth.


Lisa Carrington: maintain perspective

Lisa Carrington says she works on her mental skills almost as much as her physical. She has this advice:

Remember to be where your feet are. Make sure you’re taking in the moment, looking around, not being stuck in your own head. Have a little bit of perspective. Sometimes it gets a little bit overwhelming when all you can think about is that race or being perfect or being good enough. So sometimes it’s good to take a break, look around and be grateful.


More help with pregame nerves

For more on coping with nerves, read Mindfulness: a simple practice pros use to lift their game.

Find a Sports Chaplain who can help you with pregame nerves.

Author Info

Sarah Auld

Sarah Auld is a writer, physiotherapist, wife, and mother of four children, from Southland. Her sport is hockey, but you will also find her supporting her children at various sports activities and a few musical ones. As well as this she supports her husband Shane in his work as chaplain for the Southland Sharks basketball team, often hosting players for meals in her home.'

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