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.
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
Nearly every experienced fencer has spent a few precious moments in “the zone,” that place we reach in our minds when our best fencing happens naturally. It’s the feeling we all strive for, especially in competition. But the zone is a temperamental state, one that you slide into sideways, rather than stepping into directly. Let’s look at it more closely.
What does the zone feel like in fencing?
Every person’s experience in the zone is different, but one of the key similarities is that it is often described as a “flow” state, a term coined by the psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. When you are in it, the skills that you have worked so hard to accumulate are at your fingertips and seem to just “flow” out of you. I would describe my own personal experience in the zone as effortless action. Regardless of what my opponent threw at me, I felt intuitively pulled towards the right counter-action. Sometimes this corresponded with a sense of time slowing down, giving me an extra second to process and execute my action.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that I was more likely to reach the zone when two conditions where met. First, I had to be confronting a task that involved just the right amount of challenge. I could not find the zone when fencing a much weaker opponent, nor could I reach it when fencing a much stronger opponent. It usually occurred when I competed against someone that was at my level or just above. The second condition was just the right amount of nervousness. I needed a few butterflies in my stomach, but if I felt extreme anxiety, the zone was nearly impossible to achieve.
Stop trying to control the result to reach the zone
My best fencing came from focusing on the right cues—my opponent's body language, the weight of the saber in my hand, the feelings in my own body—that helped me make the best fencing decisions I could. However, if I thought too often about what result I desired, I lost touch with these important cues, and the zone eluded me. In other words, the more control I tried to exert over what was going to happen, the less I was able to put forward the kind of fencing that would bring about that very result.
Later in my career, I began using a technique called “anchoring” to help me return to the zone during competition. The idea of anchoring is simple: you put yourself in the desired state of mind (e.g. the zone) and perform a small physical action that your mind begins associating with that very state. Much like Pavlov conditioned his dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell, you can call forth a desired state through an action you have anchored to it.
In the year prior to the Beijing Olympics, I began wearing a ring on the index finger of my non-fencing hand. It had a small outer layer that I could flick downwards with my thumb causing the ring to spin around its axis. So each time I felt like I was in the zone during practice or competition, I would spin the ring, thus anchoring that feeling to the state I was in. So when it came time to fence in the Olympics, I used the ring before (and sometimes during) my bouts to help me get back into the zone.
But you don’t have to use a ring to create an anchor. Try something simple like squeezing your thumb between your forefinger or pounding your chest in a specific way. It takes a while (several weeks at least) to properly associated as a habit, but give it a shot let me know how it worked for you in the comments!