March 24, 2016

BROFSKY | Nerves, an Athlete’s True Opponent

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Nerves are debilitating, they’re messy, and they cause regret. When I look back, what I regret the most as a competitive athlete is letting nerves get the best of me.

Sports are of an uncertain nature; we don’t know how things will turn out. Questions pervade the course of a game or performance, and nothing is set in stone. This means risks. Anything could happen. Anxiety tends to be concerned with the future in the form of a perceived threat or danger (to safety or ego integrity). Of course, there are physical dangers, but the threats to our dignity may seem more severe.

Negative anxiety stems from a lack of confidence and can appear in forms such as negative self-talk. This lack of confidence is often linked to an unbalanced identity, placed mostly in the importance of sport.

Anxiety is especially prevalent in individual sports. There is more pressure, more focus on you. Any mistakes directly translate into letting yourself down. There is no anonymity; you are completely exposed.

Sasha Cohen was the silver medalist in the women’s figure skating category in the 2006 Olympics. This is a huge accomplishment, yet it was a major upset after her victorious results from the short program event. In the context of her rather disappointing and frustrating long program performance, Cohen said, “You’re going to have millions of thoughts, but it’s the ones you choose to give significance to. Sometimes you have to make it simple. It’s like, ‘You know what: All you have to do right now is put on your pants. And after you put on your pants, just put on your shoes.’ All of a sudden you’re on a bus, then in the arena. You warm up, and it’s time to tie your skates. Then all you have to do is walk to the side of the boards. When they call your name, there are so many thoughts of what it means at this moment. Then the music starts. The next four minutes will change the rest of your life. It’s so hard – you can’t even describe it in words. It’s too much to process.”

The weight on moments like this one can cause such an imbalance to ripple through the mind that it seems amazing to be able to function at all. When consequences stack on top of each other and become the equivalent of a life’s work in the form of broken dreams, how can the human mind deal with that? I think it’s all wrapped up in perspective and maintaining a healthy notion of identity. Some sort of mental distancing or compartmentalization can provide more control and remove nerves.

There is a necessity to dismiss anxiety in order to reach the highest potential. Yes, anxiety naturally originates from this notion of fight or flight, but in sports, it only seems to manifest itself in the form of obstacles. It doesn’t help initiate positive or successful reactions.

As the World Figure Skating Championships approaches, there are sure to be disappointments, but also great feats and realized goals and records. When there are limited opportunities to show yourself as your best self, some rise to the occasion and others fail to do so – unfortunately, often at the trigger of nerves and the disabling hum of anxiety.