How to Empower Athletes to Embrace Their Nerves

Nervousness can sabotage an athlete’s performance, but it doesn’t have to. The difference is in how an athlete interprets nerves. Do they view the symptoms of nervousness as helpful or harmful? As a coach, you can empower athletes to embrace their nerves and use them to their advantage.

My Nervous Moment

One day, during my junior year of high school, I was warming up for our district cross country meet. I’d been running better and better throughout the season. Today, my team matched up against our rivals, with the winner to advance to regionals. The pressure mounted and I wanted to run my best race.

As we jogged our final strides out from the starting line, Coach Cumbo asked me, “How are you feeling?”

I told him the truth. “Coach, I feel pretty good, a little nervous, and I’ve got butterflies in my stomach.”

His response caught me off guard. “Good. That means you care. If you weren’t feeling those butterflies, I wasn’t going to let you run today.”

What?! In his own way, he was telling me that nerves can be a good thing. The difference was in how I interpreted them.

He taught me that I needed to embrace my feelings of nervousness. They weren’t bad and they certainly weren’t to be avoided.

In fact, the symptoms of nervousness show that our bodies are preparing for action.

I’ve never been afraid of big moments. I get butterflies. I get nervous and anxious, but I think those are all good signs that I’m ready for the moment.” – Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

Help Your Athletes Embrace Nervousness

Let me share with you two easy solutions to help your athletes embrace nerves.

1. Educate Your Athletes About the Fight-or-Fight Response. 

What some athletes interpret as nerves are actually the body’s way of “preparing battle stations.”

When a saber-tooth tiger startled your ancestor, this was the same process that (in seconds) prepared his body to kill it or climb the tallest tree possible.

Every aspect of our fight-or-flight response serves a purpose. For example, you sweat because your body is literally warming up your muscles for action.

Once athletes understand that their bodies are working for them and not against them, they become less anxious and embrace their nerves as a feeling of readiness.

2. Encourage Athletes To Interpret Their Nerves As Excitement. 

Rather than urging athletes to calm down (good luck with that), encourage them to view their nerves as excitement about the competition.

Encourage them to say out loud, “I’m not nervous. I’m excited.”

This shift in mindset has proven to improve performance compared to taking the calm down approach.

It made a huge difference with a fighter I worked with. He had never looked at his nerves like this before and it changed his whole mindset before a fight.

Free Download

To help athletes understand their nerves are the body’s way of preparing for competition, I developed this free infographic for coaches to hang in the locker room.

Empower Athletes to Embrace Their Nerves

When athletes learn to interpret their fight-or-flight symptoms as helpful instead of harmful, they can embrace their nerves. As a coach, you can set the stage for this and empower athletes to channel their nerves into peak performance. Athletes who embrace their nerves are less hesitant and more decisive and confident in their abilities. That’s a recipe for success.

Question: What situations cause your athletes to become nervous? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. 


Please note: I encourage reader discussion, however, I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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