8 tips from a High Performance Psychologist for crushing nerves and smashing goals

Think positive. Be confident. This is how I will totally nail my next Taekwondo grading exam.

Yep. Just gotta banish these feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, fear and stress and it’s in the bag.

Be GONE cretins! Easy as.

Think Positive, Be Confident and this time for sure my mind won’t go completely blank the minute I set foot on the mats in front of my instructor.

I won’t forget the very first step in the Pattern I had pretty much perfect only minutes ago.

And my hands won’t shake with every gosh darn block or strike. Just gotta try harder to be confident and positive. I got this.

Until. The same thing happens again. Dagnammmmmittttttt!!!

Just like all the other times, I’ve done enough to pass but I’m not sure “just enough” is going to cut it at the end of the year when I attempt my Black Belt grading in front of a looong panel of high-ranking Masters. Plus: “Just enough” can get stuffed!

I’ve tried and tried to “Think Positive, Be Confident” but #*%@*#(^&.

IT’S. NOT. WORKING.

And I know I’m not alone here. When I recently asked followers of my Facebook page about the fears they had faced and possibly overcome with regard to their martial arts training, fear of grading was a common theme.

Other moments requiring performance like breaking boards or sparring popped up too.

So I went in search of answers. And to be honest I was pretty gobsmacked but also heartened by the wisdom I found.

Caroline on confidence

Here’s where I introduce Caroline Anderson. She represented Australia at the 2004 Athens Olympics in Taekwondo and these days she is a Performance Psychologist to athletes and sporting organisations.

Caroline Anderson

I literally struck gold amiright?

And here’s why I literally love her already.

Caroline says:  “We have often been told that feeling confident helps our performance or ability to reach our goals. This can put great pressure on us to feel a particular way or believe that because we don’t feel confident, it means we’re doomed to fail.

“More recent research however suggests that increases in self-confidence do not consistently result in significant increases in performance.

“I see self-confidence as an added bonus, not necessarily an accurate predictor of performance.”

Pheeeeeeews. Confidence is not key, it’s just a bonus. That’s kind of a relief don’t you think?

It’s also easy to presume that the level of elite athletes Caroline works with would never struggle with nerves or confidence the way us mere mortals do.

Afterall, they’re so gifted and talented at what they do. How could they possibly not feel confident?

Nup.

Caroline says she can still remember only too well the anxiety she was feeling before a fight at the Olympics. At the time she had already begun studying to be a psychologist (juggling elite-level training and tertiary studies all at once is just how she rolls!!??) and only wishes she had a grip then on some of the mental strategies she now has for managing nerves and performing at your best.

Caroline Anderson

She now says it’s not that some people don’t have these emotions, it’s just that they have trained themselves to pay less attention to them.

So let’s recap:

  1. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel confident.
  2. You’re not alone. Even elite level athletes struggle with confidence.

This is a thoroughly brilliant place to start. So what next? Exactly how then do we nail that grading, smash our goals and generally kick arse with swagger?

Am I glad you asked!

Caroline says the key is developing a high performance mindset with research showing our mindset can have a huge impact on performance.

Best of all, Caroline has a ton of psychological strategies she uses with her clients to help develop this high performance mindset.

But here’s the next real crucial point Caroline makes.

Achieving a high performance mindset is not like flicking a switch. Exactly the same as mastering a new kick or technique, it takes practice. Lots of it.

Caroline says: “In developing a high performance mindset you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s something we intuitively understand when it comes to physical pain.

“Think of the last time you went to the dojang – did you experience that lactic acid burn, the aching muscles? Yet because you know it means you’re working hard and getting results you’re generally pretty happy to accept this discomfort.

Conquering fears

“We can apply the same rules and thinking to uncomfortable emotions.

Caroline’s strategies for cultivating this successful mindset are aimed at managing thoughts, feelings, situations, challenges and unexpected events in order to focus on the task and what matters to us.

“There is so much emphasis in society on positive thinking and challenging negative thoughts that the idea that negative thoughts are not dangerous or harmful can be a major breakthrough for the clients I work with.

“We don’t need to get into a battle with our thoughts, trying to force ourselves to only think positive. What we can do it is learn how to pay less attention to our unhelpful thoughts, not to get too hooked in by them and believe them so much. “

Let’s recap again:

  1. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel confident.
  2. You’re not alone. Even elite level athletes struggle with confidence.
  3. The key to success is a high performance mindset.
  4. Achieving it takes hard work and practice just like physical training.

Now, if you thought this was going to turn out like one of those articles where you’re left feeling like the toddler who finally managed to climb up to the top shelf of the pantry only to find the lolly jar totes empty, think again!

Caroline hasn’t left us hangin’. She’s been generous enough to share some of the specific strategies she uses with her high performance clients.

First she helps them clarify their values and purpose.

“When we are clear about why we are doing something, it becomes easier to get through the difficult bits that inevitably come along,” says Caroline.

“Increasing focus and awareness of our values helps build motivation and enables us to take positive action, even when doing so is challenging, scary or uncomfortable.”

Then once the values and purpose are clear, she employs Mindfulness techniques to help her clients focus on them while allowing other less helpful thoughts and emotions to drift on past.

“Mindfulness is currently one of the most evidence based skills in enhancing focus, improving memory and cognitive functioning, productivity and performance. With regular practice, learning to strengthen our present moment awareness can also reduce stress and anxiety and improve general wellbeing.

Mindfulness

“Mindfulness interventions are effective because they help people direct their attention to the current task rather than getting caught up in past mistakes or fears of failure. Practicing mindfulness can help us stay in the present moment and focus on the task at hand and when we need to most – like when performing a pattern in front of the instructor. “

Another recap:

  1. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel confident.
  2. You’re not alone. Even elite level athletes struggle with confidence.
  3. The key to success is a high performance mindset.
  4. Achieving it takes hard work and practice just like physical training.
  5. Why are you doing this? Be clear about your purpose and values.
  6. Practice Mindfulness techniques to maintain focus and reduce stress.

Finally, Caroline has some very specific suggestions to help with nerves and focus during that next grading exam or performance moment.

Be clear what you want to focus on. In a performing a Pattern for example, keep bringing your attention to the movements in your body, the next sequence of steps and how you want to perform those moves.

Cue words can help reset your focus when you become distracted. Think “strong and fast”, “powerful movements” or even “I’ve got this”.

In a bad case of nerves, grounding techniques can help such as touching and holding your belt while counting backwards from 100 in 3s or stretch and really notice how the stretches feel in your muscles. Grounding helps pay less attention to those distracting thoughts like “What if I muck this up”.

Final recap:

  1. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel confident.
  2. You’re not alone. Even elite level athletes struggle with confidence.
  3. The key to success is a high performance mindset.
  4. Achieving it takes hard work and practice just like physical training.
  5. Why are you doing this? Be clear about your purpose and values.
  6. Practice Mindfulness techniques to maintain focus and reduce stress.
  7. Cue words to help maintain focus
  8. Grounding techniques to deal with nerves and distracting thoughts.

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