Competition day and the NERVES – BYOP


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Competition day and the NERVES

Competition day and the NERVES

Have you often walked up onto the platform or court or field (or wherever you play your sport) on the day of the largest competition of your career, and all of a sudden, freak out and lose your nerves, and as such, perform badly?

Well, a lot of us have, and many of us would say that it is only true experience that we learn to calm our nerves and do what we were trained for. 

However, for those newcomers out there to their sport, do not despair. There are ways to mitigate nervousness, and this is what this article shall discuss. 

Physiology of nervousness

When we are nervous, our sympathetic nervous system activates and takes control. The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system in our body, and is responsible for fight-or-flight mechanisms. In a fight or a bear attack for example, these responses keep us alive. On the other side of the autonomic nervous system, we have the parasympathetic nervous response, which is one that activates to help us rest-and-digest. 

In the event of trauma, stress or anxiety, the sympathetic response takes control and the body rapidly produces adrenaline. Adrenaline then instigates several physiological processes including:

  • increased heart rate
  • dilation of bronchus in lungs
  • pupil dilation in eyes
  • vasoconstriction of blood vessels 

These physiological changes can give rise to several noticeable effects like :

  • decreased cognition ( increased heart rate leads to increased cognition at first, due to blood flow to the brain, but over time, after a certain threshold, cognition starts to decrease exponentially)
  • tunnel vision
  • depth and time distortion
  • hearing exclusion 
  • tremor
  • memory impairment

It is these effects that make us commit mistakes and to throw our training out the window.


Very simply, in the face of anxiety inducing, nerve-wrecking scenarios, we have to somehow minimise our sympathetic response and play on our parasympathetic system. This means repetitively doing something till it becomes an automated action that we can perform under stress, such as taking a free kick for a football player, or repetitive empty bar sets for powerlifters to reinforce motor patterns. 

But this is simply the icing off the cake. In the face of panic, these countless repetitions can screw up. This is when we need to take ACTIVE CONTROL of the situation, and the trick lies in breathing. 

By controlling our breathing rate, and taking slower, deeper breaths, we can control our respiratory and more importantly, heart rates. This will attempt to push any sympathetic response back to the parasympathetic side, which will help calm our nerves. 

Traditionally, this case study has been seen in militaries around the world, where soldiers on active deployment to war zones are taught to take 4Secs to inhale, 4 secs to hold the breath, 4 secs to exhale, 4 secs to hold the breath before repeating and engaging the enemy/ or taking the shot. 

Of course, as athletes, we do not have to stick so closely to the formula, and 2 deep slow breaths should suffice to calm our nerves. 

Reference table for Heart rates and physiological effects

HR 60-90 = normal

HR 100-120 = tremors -> we lose fine motor control

HR 120-140 = decreased cognition, tunnel vision, auditory loss

HR 140 > = depth perception

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