How Do Athletes Deal With Nerves?

Things Mental Skills Coaches Train Athletes To Do


As bowlers we all get nervous from time to time.  But when your job is based on performing extreme feats in front of hundreds or millions on television, it is fair to say that you may be more familiar with that nervous feeling than most.  I remember my first television show as a Rookie on Tour.  It felt like slow motion as I was going through my approach to release the ball.  I don’t think I have ever been that nervous since that shot.   In addition to physical training, elite athletes often undergo what’s called mental skills coaching in order to harness their anxiety around performing to become better athletes. “Once athletes get to [elite] levels, the difference between winning and losing is often times not a physical difference,” Ben Oliva, a Mental Performance Coach at Sports Strata in New York City, tells Bustle. Certain techniques can help athletes hone their skills for consistent success, but as these sports psychologists tell Bustle, these are strategies that you can use even if you’re not an elite athlete.

There are tons of mental skills that these professionals teach their clients, but these are eight that literally anyone can benefit from, athlete or not. All it takes is an open mind, and, as with any new sport, lots and lots of practice.


Increasing Your Awareness

In order to effectively manage your nerves, you need to be aware of the situations where you're stressed in the first place.  This goes back to the RED-YELLOW-GREEN Light system.  You must know when you have lost control (Red); when you are about to lose control (Yellow) and when you are in control (Green).  Basically knowing when things are going well and when things aren’t going well.  Ask yourself:  “What does it look like when I’m truly at my best, and how can I do that as often as possible?”


Reset Your Goals

Instead of stressing out about the outcome of your goals, try focusing on your process instead.  That way you won’t get stressed out about things you can’t control.  Control your Controllables.  Focus on your effort, attitude, breathing, self-talk, etc.  Set your goals with what you have control over.


Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is a wonderful way to pull your brain back into the present moment and refocus your energy.  Take an action that you routinely repeat every day, and pay close attention to what you're doing.  Singling out a mindless action (honing in on brushing your teeth) every day can help strengthn your overall awareness.  Apps like Headspace and Insight Timer are great places to start guided meditations and instruction.  Meditation focuses on your breath, which is always present. 


Adjust Your Self-Talk

A pep talk directly affects your confidence and the we you perform on the field and literally everywhere else.  The athlete must focus on the right thing at the right time every time.  Self-talk is a great way to execute this but it must be an everyday thing. 


Use Your Breath

The breath is the PILLAR in mindset training.  It relaxes your body and mind so you can get back under control (Green) and stay present.  Breath six seconds in through your nose (inhale), hold for two seconds and exhale for eight seconds.  Again, you must practice this every day.


Visualize Your Success

Your imagination is an incredible tool when it comes to picturing your success.  Look at where you want to go and what you want to happen.  This is called mental rehearsal.  The more vivid the imagery, the better.  When you are visualizing, you are using some of the same neural pathways you would be using if you were actually engaging in the activity.  Your body doesn’t know the difference whether it actually happened or if you imagined it.  When I won the Earl Anthony PBA Open in 1992, I rehearsed this for months.  In fact I guttered on my very first shot on television but it never affected my performance because I rehearsed the entire match before it happened.  It’s powerful!



The only way to be able to reap the benefits of these techniques is to practice them again and again. You have to practice so that you will be able to use the skill in a moment when you really need it.  People are not born confident, self-assured, or motivated. These characteristics are acquired through practice and perseverance. It is only when we treat our minds as we do muscle that we can truly begin to flex our mental prowess.  Practice – practice – practice…


Win the Day,