It’s almost here, the big moment, the one you’ve been waiting for. Your guts are churning, and everything is on the line. Your heart is pounding out of your chest, your bladder feels like it is going to burst, and you suck in massive lungfuls of air in the hopes of hanging onto your lunch.
I could be referring to a big work presentation, preparing for an Olympic gold medal attempt, your first musical performance at Carnegie Hall, or launching into outer space.
But I’m not. I happen to be talking about running in your first major dog agility event. The feelings are just as real, just as powerful, and just as terrifying.
And you do this why? Oh right, this is supposed to be exciting, fun even.
So why are you so nervous?
Terror is relative
Sure, you aren’t going to lose your job, give away an Olympic gold medal, or blow up in a rocket but there is a lot on the line for you. You’ve worked hard, used up a lot of time and resources, and are heavily invested. You’ve got high hopes of doing well, or perhaps just more humble ones of not doing anything silly and you feel sick with fear.
Nausea is normal
You aren’t alone. I can remember walking out on the basketball court for a crucial game, trying to hide the fact I was gagging, and praying I didn’t throw up on the hardwood in front of a few thousand fans. I detested feeling so miserable…so vulnerable. On the edge of humiliation and embarrassment. So scared I wouldn’t be good enough. Guess what? We lost the game and I played horribly.
Fast forward a decade (okay, a bit more than a decade). I’m standing on the start line with a chance to win a world championship in dog agility. I felt the same way, like I was going to lose my lunch. Oh and guess what? I won.
But I had learned something during that decade that made all the difference.
The truth about nerves
Here’s the thing. You can be nervous and still be confident.
How is that possible?
Feeling nervous just means you care. It doesn’t mean you’ve lost your confidence or you are going to perform poorly. You can be nervous and still have faith in your skills. Being nervous means your body is ready to perform.
Being nervous is not a predictor of your performance. I’ve performed great when I’ve been nervous, and terrible when I’ve been calm, and I’ve also done the opposite.
The physical symptoms feel awful, but they are simply the flight or fight response of your body to a threat. Very primitive, very normal. Sure, in this case it’s not a threat to your life, it is a threat to your ego.
But the threat, and the actual physical symptoms, are not the problem.
The problem is when you think about how bad you feel, you aren’t thinking about your job. Worrying about how you are feeling destroys your focus.
You may always feel nervous before an event, but making it manageable so it doesn’t destroy your focus is the key.
5 Tricks of the Trade
So, here are five strategies I’ve used to battle my physical sensation of nerves.
1. Breathe deeply.
I know it sounds simple, but I bet if you’ve ever had the flu (either the viral kind or the beverage kind) and thought you were going to be sick, you started breathing deeply, didn’t you?
2. Do something physical and focus on the job at hand.
Bounce on the balls of your feet. Jog. Concentrate on your pre-run routine, start playing with your dog, go do some warm-up jumps, listen to music, anything that distracts you from how you are feeling.
3. Visualize a funny or peaceful or powerful situation.
An example often given for people terrified of public speaking is to imagine the audience in their underwear. Personally, I think this might be even more terrifying than anything else!
But the idea is to imagine a situation less threatening. In the movie Hoosiers, when the small town high school basketball team had made it to the state championships and his players were overwhelmed with the capacity of the stands in the arena, Coach Dale went through a big production of measuring the court to prove to his players that the place where the game would be played was the same size as their home court.
What can you create in your mind that relaxes you or gives you power? Your local trial setting? Your backyard? Or imagine the nerves give you super powers. They mean you are ready.
4. Accept your nerves and talk to them.
WHAT? Yes, I have actually had a conversation with myself, or actually with my nausea. I was so fed up with feeling sick, that I started challenging myself to throw up. “Okay, fine, I dare you, come on, throw up!” Of course, I laughed at myself, but it was a bit of a turning point for me.
When I accepted that being nervous and feeling slightly sick was part of my process, it didn’t bother me anymore. I didn’t attach any significance to it, and even started to hope to feel sick, so that I would know I was ready. Of course, when you hope to feel sick, you usually don’t.
5. Finally, change your perspective.
For me, this is a big one. I ask myself ‘what would my coach say to me right now’? I step back from my emotions and I remind myself to control what I can control, do the best job I can, have fun, and that it’s not world peace and it’s not world hunger I’m battling. I am blessed to have the resources to play a game I enjoy with a dog I adore. In essence, I let it go.
Now I’m at the point where sometimes I feel nervous and sometimes I don’t. I just don’t worry about it anymore. And you’ll get to that point too.
Your secret weapon
If none of these strategies work, you still have the ultimate secret weapon to help you regain perspective on your nerves — that win or lose, spectacular performance or funny mishap, there is a furry little buddy who is going to snuggle up beside you on the couch and love you unconditionally, no matter what happens.
So stop giving your pre-competition jitters so much power, focus on the job with your teammate, and go rock your run.
P.S. What strategies do you use to calm your nerves? Leave a comment below! (Your email will not be publicly visible.)