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5 ways to stay calm in competition

by Dr. Jenn Bennett

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Your heart starts pounding. Your palms start to sweat. Your stomach churns and your knees go weak. Your mind goes into overdrive. Your legs are glued to the ground. The crowd deafens you. You can’t focus.

What if you trip? What if you haven’t trained hard enough? What if it rains? What if … what if? As you approach the start, seconds slow to hours. Watching. Waiting. The moment you have been training for. One moment. One race.  

On competition day, the ability to manage your mind on the start line can be the difference between success and failure. Can you stay connected to the moment when it matters or does your mind turn against you and start predicting the outcome before the race has even begun? The mind loves to tell stories about the past and the future, convincing us we’re not good enough or we haven’t done enough.

5 ways to stay calm in competition

When we enter the pressure and stress of competition, we can be easily led astray by unhelpful thoughts and sensations, falling weak to the devastating scenarios that play out in our minds. You might have spent hours, weeks, months, years even, preparing your body for one moment, only to be let down at the last minute by your mind.

If you counted up the total number of hours you have spent training your body for competition and compared it to the number of hours you’ve spent preparing your mind, how would those numbers compare? All too often the words “my head just wasn’t in it” ring out in the aftermath of competition. Training yourself to direct your attention, control your arousal, and detach yourself from unhelpful thoughts is a crucial part of producing your best performance on the day.

Preparation is key, and when it comes to competition, it pays to leave nothing to chance. So, rather than obsessing about the outcome of competition, focus on creating the optimal conditions for success:

1. Have a routine

Having a set routine for the build-up to competition can increase confidence, give you something to focus on that is within your control, and allow you to adopt your optimal mindset for performance. Dedicate some time to understanding how your body and mind respond to stress. How do you think, feel and behave when you are under pressure? How do you think, feel and behave when you are at your best? By understanding where your best performances come from and what your stress response is, you can develop strategies to prepare your mind and manage potential challenges.

2. Switch your focus

There is often a tendency to lose focus as competition nears. You might start obsessing about the outcome, the weather, other competitors, or the consequences of failure. Recognizing that these things are not within your control—and are unnecessary thoughts triggered by the mind—can allow you to move your focus to what is important in this moment: the process and your performance. Holding your focus on your body and breath will also help you disengage from unhelpful thoughts and the external noise of your surroundings. Placing visual cues on your kit or equipment can also help refocus a wandering mind and bring you back to the present moment.

3. Visualize success

Our central nervous system doesn’t recognize the difference between imagined success and reality, so visualization can be a useful skill to develop. Visualization is a commonly practiced technique by athletes to help prepare for competition, also increasing confidence, focus and goal achievement. Meditation provides the foundation for an effective imagery experience, calming the mind and relaxing the body.

5 ways to stay calm in competition

Integrating short practices into your regular training can be a great way to get used to it. Start by running through every aspect of your performance in your mind. Imagine the sights, sounds, smells and physical sensations you experience. Picture yourself performing at your best in the moment, calm, and in control.

4. Befriend anxiety

While you may not be able to control your stressors, you can always choose your response. Nerves are normal. Self-doubt is normal. They are your body’s way of telling you it is alert, energized and ready to perform. Once you know how your body and mind respond to stress, you can begin to manage it. Start by getting to know how you respond to stress. What does your mind tell you? What sensations do you experience? What are your triggers? Mindfulness helps us notice thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise in response to stress but without getting caught up in them.

5. Expect the unexpected

There is no hiding from the challenges of competition. Competition is not meant to be easy. Uncertainty and risks are all part of sports, and no outcome is ever guaranteed. Try to identify every possible scenario that might occur and how you would respond. This will limit the potential for unhelpful surprises and increase the control you have over your own performance. Trust in your ability to manage whatever arises.

This piece was produced in partnership with Nike Training Club. To get started on your fitness journey, download the NTC app here.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.

Dr. Jenn Bennett

Dr. Jenn Bennett is a performance psychologist specialized in the mind-body connection. She completed her doctorate in the psychology of performance blocks, and the use of less-conscious methods as treatment. She is an applied practitioner working in elite sport and business. She is also a researcher exploring emotion-based problems affecting the body and mind, and the use of mindfulness for health, wellbeing, and performance.

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