Fight back against performance anxiety with this mental trick

Better Fencer - Dealing with Performance Anxiety

The question I am most often asked is: How do you deal with nerves before a competition? There are of course many different techniques for eliminating distractions and managing frustration. But I believe the key to a strong mental game is to master one simple trick. It’s called reframing.

What causes nervousness at competitions?

Well, a lot of things. But for now, let’s focus on the most common: uncertainty. Competitions introduce variables that you don’t often deal with in your everyday life: new surroundings, new stakes, new expectations, etc. Naturally, your mind clamors to predict what is going to happen because what if it all goes terribly wrong? This uncertainty stimulates your nervous system, which is why your palms sweat, your heart speeds up, and your breaths shorten just before an important match.

Because we aren’t accustomed to dealing with these feelings very often, many people misinterpret them. They treat the new sensations as if they are inherently bad and will lead to poor performance. This directs the internal critic in all of our minds to shift into overdrive and say things like, “OMG! I’m nervous, and I’m totally going to crash and burn.” This only increases the stimulation of your nervous system and, after a few rounds of this, you are about ready to melt into a puddle of anxiety.

What is reframing and how do I use it?

Reframing the act of consciously shifting your point of view in relation something that is happening. I used this time and time again throughout my career, including at the Olympic Games. When I felt those nerves bubble in my stomach, rather than allowing myself to think, “Oh no! I’m nervous,” I took another POV and firmly reminded myself over and over, “Excellent! These feelings are going to help me fence better.” But don’t just take it from me. Many top performers use this very technique. Bruce Springsteen reportedly gets as nervous as anyone before concerts, but in his own words, “That’s how I know I’m ready.”

How do you reframe your nervousness?


Image: Serge Timacheff / FIE modified by Better Fencer