Only this past weekend I was fortunate enough to take part in the inaugural “Durban WODWars” competition. A race-based functional fitness test that drew participants from a variety of backgrounds. Each race was unique and offered a set of challenges to address all levels of fitness. I was fortunate for 3 reasons: 1) I am good, fit and healthy enough to take part in a competition. 2) I was able to share that experience with people who I coach on a daily basis and see them really enjoy themselves and exceed their own expectations of themselves. 3) Finally, I really love the experience of competing, and I got to do that again.

I was intrigued by a question I was asked not too long ago relating to dealing/coping with nerves before a competition and took the time to let that question inform observations I made of how my athletes and those around us responded to the environment we were in. Granted it was a “fun” event, but it was still a competition. And the word “Competition” can send people spinning in all different directions at the same time. Some of which are positive, some have the potential to be negative. We need to figure out how to turn all those emotions and butterflies into something that ENHANCES your performance and experience, rather than diminish it.

Why Are You Competing?

It has always been my considered opinion that we examine our reason for doing things before we examine our response to said “thing”. So, ask yourself why it is you decided to take part in any event.

  • Why do I want to enter my first weightlifting competition?
  • Why have I entered the RX division of this Crossfit competition?
  • Why did I decide to run a marathon?
  • Etc.

Only once we’ve STATED our reasons for being there can we realistically start to manage our emotions and motivations clearly. The reason for this is simple – if you don’t know why you are doing something, you cannot justify or set any realistic expectation of either your performance or the result you obtain. And that’s where negativity and doubt creep in. If we do not know what it is we hope to achieve, we set ourselves up for (potential) failure all too easily, by our own design even.

So start with a few simple questions to guide your thinking around the competition itself and any results you expect or hope for:

  • What do I hope to LEARN from this competition?
  • Do I know what the event requirements are?
  • Do I meet those requirements yet?
  • Am I doing this for MYSELF, or someone/something else?

The last question is very important and possibly requires more honesty than we even know. All too often we enter competitive environments with the hope of gaining approval and affirmation from other people. The problem here is that if we have based our value as an individual on how we perform in the competition (results wise), we leave a lot to the unknown and that in itself creates a platform for disappointment as more often than not, we won’t win.

We should always be testing and challenging ourselves to affirm the hard work we have been putting in on our own to ourselves. If we focus all our energy inwards and on the experience of the event we will find avenues to succeed based on our efforts during the event rather than our results. In focusing on the effort over the performance we have an opportunity to use any nerves we feel to motivate us to achieve more. Rather than let those same nerves hold us back due to a fear of impending failure.

To give this a real-world example, if you are passionate about weightlifting, and decide to enter a competition, that’s fantastic. Your reasoning should be exclusively around trying to 1) take part in the competition 2) gauge the progress of your training to date under competition pressure 3) ENJOY the experience of the day 4) do your best! If we enter, under those circumstances, we have the ability to remove the (negative) pressure of performing for a result or position at the end of the day (which we can not control), and we place all our energy on our own performance, which is directly within our control. Thereby creating a very positive environment for us to compete in and HARNESS any nerves we may be feeling.

Preparation Creates Confidence

If we know that we love something and want to measure ourselves in a competitive environment, then we are likely to take the time to prepare for that event. Surely?

In any situation, war, weightlifting, CrossFit, running, whatever, the people who are most prepared will likely come out on top. Preparation does a few things for us.

Firstly, and simply put, full preparation gives us the confidence of knowing what it is we are truly capable of. Because we’ve already done it in practice. And once we’ve successfully completed something, we know we can do it again, and again, and again. So if we have prepared to the level required of us in competition, we are able to enter it with the confidence of pushing ourselves to fulfil our potential, as opposed to entering it and HOPING we are able of performing on the day.

Secondly, preparation, complete or incomplete, gives us the information we need in order to manage our expectations of performance. We can not hope to do a pull-up in a competition if we have never executed one in practice, can we? Therefore, should the competition require us to do a pull-up, and we know we have not done enough training to execute one, there is no point in being nervous about it. Further to that, there is no point or value in being critical of ourselves when we fail to do one in competition because we entered the competition/challenge with the knowledge of our realistic ability level.

A personal example I have is from my time competing in Strongman. We often had the Log Lift as an event. This was not good for me. My rugby days have done damage to my shoulders that was not repaired. I was never able to prepare effectively as a result. The training equipment we had at the time was also heavier than what I was capable of performing. This meant entering competitions I was never “ready” to do well. So I always placed last here. At the time I was not mature and experienced enough to realise that I should not have been as hard on myself as I was and many times, due to my lack of preparation I had failed before I even tried as I was aware I was not strong enough to successfully complete the lift. This affected me terribly from a mental and emotional perspective. The moral of the story is that if I had a better understanding of what capabilities I had entering the comp or event, I would have been able to better manage my expectations, rather than beat myself before I even started. Let alone beat myself up once I inevitably failed. This would have led to a more effective and graduated training regime that would have resulted in success as opposed to constant disappointment. It’s either a vicious downward cycle or the foundation for success. The choice is yours!

Preparation through hard and smart training is the “secret trick” we are all looking for in competition. The better prepared we are, the more aware and confident we are of and in our own abilities. It is very rare we perform worse than we are prepared for (barring accidents or things outside our control), and more often than not, the excitement and edge we gain from a competitive streak leads us to exceed our training performances.

Control Controllables, Forget About Uncontrollables

In any environment, we choose to be in we are confronted by a set of factors that will influence us in some way. These factors or variables are broadly separated by whether or not we can control them. Learning to distinguish between them is essential. Once we learn what we have control over in our environment we have the choice to exercise control, or not. For those things we can not control, we should not worry about them. In regards to factors beyond our control, we have to let go of our worry over their effect and focus exclusively on controlling our reaction when they come up.

Let’s try and identify a few (not all) of these variables so we can see how best to apply ourselves at future competitions:

  • Your preparation/training
  • Your nutrition/hydration leading up to the event and on the day
  • The time you arrive at the event
  • Your knowledge of probable warm-up facilities
  • Your knowledge of the events and their requirements
  • Your movement standards during the event itself
  • Having the correct equipment for the event
  • Familiarising yourself with the layout of the arena and your Heat times
  • Your warm-up routine
  • Your lifting routine
  • Your attitude in general
  • Your attitude to unforeseen obstacles and challenges
  • Your “Why”
  • Your awareness of the degree to which you have controlled all the above factors
  • The ability of your fellow competitors
  • The judge’s eyes (not that you should leave any doubt)
  • The weather (but you could check for an idea in advance)
  • Equipment failures (the event’s, you should know your own equipment)
  • Freak accident/injury

As you should see above, the things we can’t control are really outside of our ability to influence and they’re very general. Everything else is up to us. If we plan to control any anxiety or negative emotion we feel during an event, it starts with acknowledging what we have influence over. Simply put, the less aware we are of ourselves and our ability to control our environment, the more chance there is of being negatively affected by that same environment. The objective being to know our limitations and focus exclusively on what we know we can do, and doing our best within that realm of influence. Because after that, it’s just not up to us, so we should not waste energy on worrying about it.

The Role Of Routine

We’ve just briefly touched on routine in the previous title and I believe it has great value to people. I personally find that having a sure understanding of what I need to do in order to prepare or ready myself fills me with confidence that I will be able to try my hardest when the time comes. Conversely, if I have not prepared myself adequately and I do not understand how to control my environment, then I routinely end up over-thinking or not thinking at all, and messing up…see the whole game of golf as an example. Because I have not put in enough work, I do not know what feels/is good so I’m really just guessing and hoping when I address the ball (before shanking it into the Amazon).

Conversely, being too reliant on an elaborate routine to set yourself up is a recipe for disaster in my opinion. It borders on superstition and really just presents an absurd amount of things that can go wrong and negatively affect your lift. Most recently I’ve noted this trend in the new generation of weightlifters and powerlifters. Some people seem to spend more time setting up for their lifts than they’ve ever spent actually training the lift itself. Really. It’s pathetic and can only be distracting from the lift itself.

The take-home message as far as Routine in calming nerves before and during a competition, is that it should always be about simplifying and focusing the mind on executing the task at hand as quickly and effectively as possible. Developing a Routine should be about speeding up the process of getting your mind into a performance state or “flow state” as they say, where you use the routine from your training to quiet your mind and allow your body to operate subconsciously. Rather than trying to control everything and think your way through the lift/performance.

Nerves Are Your Friend

Everything to this point has been subtly pushing you to think about controlling your environment and reasons for being in a competitive setting. The reason being is that once we understand all of the above and how those factors relate to our unique personality, we start to think about “nerves”, “butterflies”, or “anxiety” differently.

Let’s be clear, Anxiety is no good to us. Anxiety is what we have when we believe we have no control over our environment and we have decided already that all outcomes are likely to be negative as we are not suitably equipped to handle the situation, whatever that may be. Anxiety is not your friend. But being anxious, even if we have a predisposition to it, is a choice we make. That’s right, being anxious is your choice. You either failed to prepare, failed to define your goals and performance outcomes, failed to be motivated intrinsically, or failed to be aware of your own strengths/limitations coming into a comp. Anxiety speaks to a situation where you have placed responsibility your performance outside of your control and at the mercy of basically anything or anyone else, yet you are worried about what everyone will think about your performance. It is hugely damaging to performance, self-confidence and development. But you can control it and reverse it if you use the things we’ve spoken about to this point. You just have to exercise a little bit of self-awareness and humility is all.

On the other hand, we have Nerves or Butterflies, which are HUGELY positive for us! It’s important at this time to acknowledge that taking part in physical fitness/strength competitions is a privilege we have. It is not a right. It does not define us. It is something we absolutely should be grateful for. There are millions of people in the world who would love to be playing CrossFit, or playing Weightlifting, or playing JiuJitsu or playing soccer, you get the point. This is truly a luxury. Treat it as such. Nobody forces you into competitions, you choose to be there. Make the absolute most of it. Do your BEST. The result, win or lose, is fleeting. There will be a new champion next year. And also a new last place finisher.

The mere fact we experience nerves is an expression of the excitement and value we place on

the challenge in front of us. For that reason, I like to feel nerves before competing. It means I’m ready and happy to be in that situation. It means I’m going to give it my all out there on the platform and appreciate the opportunity I get.

You have to HARNESS those nerves to give you the extra 10% you don’t have when you’re training on your own without the excitement. Those nerves sharpen you up and focus you to a point that makes heavy things light and hard things easy.

If we are aware enough of the work (or lack of) that we’ve put in, our motivation for being there and have controlled our environment to the best of our ability, then we control our attitude to the challenge before us. If we are aware of the potential outcomes and results and why they may happen, and we can align those to our preparation. If we do that, then we are able to dispel the worry over what will happen as our desired outcomes/goals are aligned or off-set against our effort.

Ultimately, we need nerves to perform, it’s evolutionary. Use them to make the most of your competitive situations. Don’t let them control you by not being self-aware.

Live Untamed and compete hard!