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Preparing for the Nerves: Competition Simulations

For some athletes competing can be a nerve-wracking and stressful experience. Every athlete experiences nerves – if they don’t, then they probably aren’t ready for competition. Even the fastest man ever to live, Usain Bolt, couldn’t sleep before races! However, the nerves associated with competition can have a debilitating effect on performance. Why can competing be such a hard thing to do? Why do some athletes crumble under the pressure?

Competition is a large part of sport. It is the moment when you put all your training and preparation to the test. It is where your training is judged and it is your opportunity to go out there and showcase all the hard work you have put in. Whilst some people embrace this challenge and rise to the occasion, others struggle and are unable to transfer what they have done in training into competition.

All training and learning new skills will eventually lead towards competition, so it is vital to learn how to deal with the thoughts and feelings that accompany competitions. One extremely useful way we can prepare and learn to deal with these stresses is through competition simulations. This may be practising or training under pressured conditions, running your own mock competitions that simulate all the finer details such as having judges, an audience or wearing appropriate kit, or by limiting yourself to as few warm ups as possible. Experiencing these conditions that are as close to competition environments as possible, instils a sense of accomplishment and can help you to believe that come competition day, you will be able to perform!

By rehearsing competitions, you can also learn how you deal with your emotions under pressure. Everybody deals with their nerves in a different way. Some people like to talk a lot, some people pace, others shut their eyes and listen to music. Experiencing these emotions and learning how to cope with them effectively enables you to build such strategies when you encounter those unhelpful emotions on competition day. You can also start to become desensitised to these emotions as you become more used to them, allowing you to put all your focus on the aspects of your performance you should be directing your resources towards.


How you can simulate competitions to build effective strategies

Simulation competitions should mimic the conditions you want compete under. The simplest version of this could be running through the format of a competition. If you know you only get four warm ups and a one touch, only practice with four warm ups and a one touch! This way, you know how you want to warm up your routines and that you’ve got your warm up right for you. Any more than four is a bonus that you can take or leave.

After completing your warm up you should then ‘compete’ your routines to your coach allowing yourself plenty time between your set and voluntary (or first and second passes). At competitions, we can have at least 10 minutes between competing, but often have much less in between goes at training. Simulating the timings of a competition, even running through warming up and competing a final, will help you understand how you will feel on competition day.

If you find competition environments quite daunting, you could take this a step further and incorporate more of the elements that may make you worry. Why not get people to judge your routines? Arrange for an audience to create noise and commotion. If it’s the quiet the makes you nervous, make your training venue is silent. Mimicking details of the environment you might normally struggle with you can become much more comfortable and know how to deal with it in the future. It will soon start to feel normal.


Simulation competitions for the coach

As a coach, use these simulation competitions as an opportunity and proof of fitness to judge whether a performer is ready to compete their new routine or manage their emotions and nerves during competitions. The chances are, if your performer can consistently, they are well prepared. On the other hand, they may help you identify areas of their competition that may need addressing.

Use them to prepare for big competitions or competitions with a different arrangement than the norm such as warming up and competing on different trampolines. Use simulation competitions to teach newer and younger gymnasts how to compete whilst giving older competitors other people to ‘compete’ against. When they come to their first or bigger competitions, it takes away some of the stress of the unknown.


Final thoughts

The possibilities are almost endless, meaning you can tailor them to each of your performers individual needs. This kind of training is an extremely useful tool for gymnasts and coaches – you can’t get away from having to compete, so it’s important to get used to it! At the end of the day, you get good at what you practice, so practice competing!


Providing support across a range of sports, Emily offers one-to-one sessions, group workshops and tailored strategies for both athletes and coaches at all levels designed to enhance mental performance in sporting environments. For more information or to contact Emily: direct email or tweet her @EMsportsci.

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