Dealing with Nerves
We’ve all experienced it. The big game, the decisive fixture when your season hangs in the balance, the Cup final match that you deserve to win because you’ve obliterated the opposition in all the previous rounds. You’ve been building up for this game. In any normal game you feel fine but for this one you feel really nervous.
As a football psychologist let me get this clear straight away. Some nerves before a big game are good. Why? Because they are there for a reason: to supercharge your body, to focus the mind and to improve your alertness, all qualities that are useful for a footballer. For this reason it always makes me chuckle when I hear a footballer say “I don’t get nervous before a big game” Actually it’s great that you get nervous.
Some nerves before a big game are good…they are there for a reason…to supercharge your body, to focus the mind and to improve your alertness.
And this leads me to my first football psychology technique to combat nerves before a big game.
Football Psychology Technique 1: Love It and Live It!
Let’s give you something straight off the bat here. Try not to fight them at all. Accept them. Simply see nerves as a sign that you are ready to play.
Try not to fight nerves at all. Accept them. They are a part of your football psychology.
Rather than talking to yourself in a negative way strive to enjoy the feelings you are experiencing. Put a smile on your face as your heart pounds and declare to yourself how excited you feel as your body shakes a little. When you are doing this you are putting a positive spin on what so many people believe is a negative thing. How powerful is that? And you know this is what the champions do.
Champions are champions because they have learnt to love nerves.
Champions are champions because they have learnt to love feeling nervous.
Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, David Beckham and the swimmer Michael Phelps are examples of champions who enjoy feeling nervous because they know their nervous feelings are a sign that they are ready to compete.
They have been working their backside off for years to get themselves into position to feel nervous. And when they feel it they love it. They embrace it. They accept it, and then they go play.
Nerves: love it, embrace it, accept it, then go play.
Football Psychology Technique 2: Questions, Questions
When you feel nervous and this leads to doubt you will make negative statements to yourself. For example:
- “I am going to mess up today.”
- “If I mess up I will look stupid.”
- “If I make a mistake I will be subbed and dropped for the next match.”
As we’ve discussed in the previous chapter these statements are accompanied by pictures…mental pictures of you messing up…of you making a mistake and of you being substituted. And these pictures drive you deeper into this feeling of nervousness…where you will experience doubt, worry and anxiety.
If nerves are accompanied by statements of doubt, confidence building is delivered by asking oneself questions:
- “What will it look like if I play with confidence?”
- “What will it look like if I’m strong in the challenge?”
- “What will others see when I play my best game out there today?”
- “How will I have played if I was given the man of the match?”
If nerves are accompanied by statements of doubt, confidence building is delivered by asking oneself questions.
These football psychology questions are very powerful. And powerful questions will make an instant profound impact on your ability to deal with pressure. Why? Because as we’ve discussed before:
The words you use determine the pictures you see which drives your confidence and subsequently determines your performance.
When nerves are accompanied by negative statements and they remain unchecked your performances will suffer.
You must stop negative statements and start asking questions.
Questions that involve exciting, upbeat, energised words combat nervousness. They unlock your potential by directing your nervous energy toward playing your best game.
Questions unlock your potential by directing your nervous energy toward playing your best game.
What questions can you ask yourself? It’s limitless! Let’s think of some more:
- “What will it look like if I dominate the man I’m marking today?”
- “What body language do I want to play with passion, commitment and excellence?”
- “What will it feel like if I’m strong in every challenge?”
You see it’s limitless. You can ask a question about any part of your game. The point is it gets you focusing your attention on your game rather than on your nerves; it gets you focused on playing well, rather than playing badly; and it utilises the energy your nervousness has created.
Take a few minutes now to ask yourself these questions. I bet you get a real buzz. I bet you feel good. Think about asking yourself these questions before you play. Think about how brilliantly they are going to use the energy you have flowing around your body.
Think about how brilliantly they are going to use the energy you have flowing around your body.
Do make sure that your questions allow you to create big bold positive images because this will make you feel good and feeling good is the battle won when it comes to performing under pressure.
Football Psychology Technique 3: Easy Does It
If you’re nervous take some deep breaths. It works!
I could go into great depth here about the nervous system and the relaxation response, but why bother.
It has become common place across the world that taking a few deep breaths lowers your heart rate and relaxes your body so you can effectively prepare to play.
What I will say is that recent scientific evidence suggests that when you are under pressure the area of your brain that deals with your focus, your thinking, and your decision making switches off and that deep breathing switches it back on again.
I will cover this a little more in the next section. In the meantime it would be useful to take a few deep breaths before you next play, especially when you feel a little nervous.