Game day nerves are typical. Great athletes are good at feeding off of this sympathetic response to stressors. They can make it work for them. They “have that sense of urgency, without the panic of urgency.” (1)
First, the importance of preparation for game day must be emphasized. I am not a fan of “winging-it.” Lack of preparation isn’t cool. Ideally, you would like your skill or task to be seen as “effortlessness in your actions, that you are simply doing something without thinking. That only comes after massive work and repetition to prepare yourself for those moments when you can be effortless.” (1)
Once you have achieved some form of effortlessness in your preparation, you can move onto this second bit of information that should grant you some comfort right before your event. Acute stress, in this context, is good for you. Being incredibly anxious isn’t ideal, but the physiological responses that happen in your body are going to help you. Know that and let it happen.
The brain isn’t very good at differentiating the kind of stressor. Your boss yells at you or the announcer says, “3-2-1, go,” and your body thinks “grizzly bear.”The sympathetic nervous system takes control of the body, which then triggers fight or flight. Here is what is going on in your body:
Adrenal glands. The pituitary gland tells the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, to pour out steroids (including the stress hormone cortisol) and adrenaline to fuel the sympathetic nervous system.
Liver. The cortisol released from the adrenal glands functions mainly to raise glucose levels to energize the body. That glucose is secreted from the liver. Glucose in your blood is a fast energy source for your muscles that are about to do work.
Skin. The flight or fight reaction pushes blood flow to the muscles, and away from the skin, to prepare you for war. This redistribution of blood flow, depending on the person, can either cause you to look paler or to flush and can make your skin feel cold to the touch. You might also start perspiring, as your body wants to cool off in case you need to start moving with some intent.
Intestines. In moments of acute stress, gastrointestinal functioning decreases so that the body’s energy goes toward fighting or fleeing instead of digesting food. That means the body doesn’t always properly process the food, which can mean constipation, diarrhea, indigestion, reflux or bloating. Extreme acute stress can cause people to lose control of their bowels, which is where the term “scared s***less” comes from.
Heart. With the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the heart starts pumping out blood faster and harder to the rest of the body, fueling it for action.
Lungs. The body needs more oxygen to fuel the fight or flight response, which can cause us to start breathing more rapidly. And in order to breathe quickly, we take shallow, more superficial breaths instead of fewer, deep ones. Before you know it, you’re short of breath and, in severe cases, maybe even hyperventilating. Consciously taking deep breaths can have the opposite effect by activating the calming parasympathetic nervous system. (2)
These responses in your body may feel pretty uncomfortable, but you are much better off in a competition setting with these kinds of things going on than none of these things at all. The term “adrenaline rush” stems from all of these actions. What is cool is that this happens with any kind of big event, perhaps an interview, an exam or a public speaking event. Your mind will be clear and, if you practiced enough, your body will do what it knows. Therefore, practice any workout, speech or mock interview scenarios A LOT. Recognize that your nerves are normal and are helpful, take some deep breaths and go give ‘em hell.
1) “Game Day: A Mental Approach to Competition.” http://breakingmuscle.com/sports-psychology/game-day-a-mental-approach-to-competition-with-kenny-kane
2) “This Is Your Body On Stress.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/19/body-stress-response_n_2902073.html