Just like many of you dancers reading this, nerves were one of the biggest fears that Lauren dealt with as a dancer. Pre-competition nerves can have a significant impact on your performance, sleep, hydration and make you feel so sick that you don’t want to eat. But, it was once Lauren started to understand what nerves were that she was able to use them to her advantage to stay one step ahead.
If you are a nervous competitor, you are not alone! I can guarantee that 99% of your competitors are feeling the same way. However, what won’t be the same is the severity of your nerves and how well you deal with them.
In this article, I will help you understand what nerves are and why and how they happen so you can learn what to alter to keep your sleep, hydration, nutrition and most importantly, performance on track.
Once you understand the nervous process that happens in your body, it will be easier to accept that nerves are a normal part of competition. Taking this attitude will undoubtedly change your mindset from a negative one into a much more positive one.
The top athletes in the world welcome nerves because they can be a fantastic tool for enhancing optimal performance. But, it is critical that you know how to use them to your advantage and I am excited to teach you how.
What Are Nerves, Anxiety and Stress?
When you feel nervous you become anxious and therefore, stressed. Being stressed takes your body out of its comfort zone to prepare itself for something that is about to happen.
The absolute biggest thing you have to understand about nerves, anxiety and stress is that the body cannot differentiate between different types of stress.
Your body doesn’t know if you are going up on stage to dance, if it’s your birthday or if you are being chased by a gorilla. So, when faced with stress, certain processes happen within your body to protect you against danger and improve your chance of survival.
You might have heard of this process being referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response. If not, don’t worry. I am going to teach you what it is and why it is so important for competitive dancers to understand.
Your Body’s Fight or Flight Response
The fight or flight response is a reaction that occurs in response to a perceived event, attack, or threat to survival. It is the natural way your body prepares to either fight or run away.
Of course, as a dancer, we are talking about preparing the body to compete on stage. But, the preparation your body goes through hormonally is no different than any other stressful events.
To get a better understanding, let’s look at the body’s natural pre-competition stress response:
Nervous system activation - As soon as the body senses stress it will trigger the sympathetic nervous system. This makes you more alert so you can respond faster. Your muscles will also tense up in preparation for something to happen.
Adrenaline is produced - At the same time your nervous system is activated, your body will release adrenaline. This is so that your body can produce enough energy to respond at top speed. Pre-competition, this ensures you are producing the maximum amount of energy possible.
Blood-glucose levels increase - Because adrenaline provides energy, the body will rapidly raise blood sugar levels and pump glycogen around the body.
Heart rate increases – An active nervous system that’s producing adrenaline will mean that your heart rate increases above its normal resting rate. Now, a higher heart rate means you’re burning more energy i.e. calories, even at rest. So, if you get nervous two weeks before the competition, be aware that you will be expending more energy and calories than normal.
Blood pressure increases - Your blood pressure and breathing rate increases to quickly transport more oxygen and nutrients around your body.
Non-essential systems shut down – Your non-essential systems shut down when you are nervous. Your body won’t waste time producing saliva or digesting food when it has bigger things to worry about. This explains why you probably don’t feel hungry pre-competition and may have a dry mouth. However, the second your competition is over and your body relaxes, these systems will start back up again. You will most likely feel very hungry all of a sudden as your body tries to replace the lost energy fast!
Blood flow is diverted - Blood is diverted away from the skin towards your muscles to provide them with more energy. This is why you see so many people look pale when they are nervous and worried.
Multiple toilet visits – There is a great reason why you might need to run to the toilet pre-competition! When you are stressed, your body tries to get rid of anything that’s going to weigh you down. Don’t fight it. Let your body do its thing.
Heavy legs - A lot of dancers report having heavy legs before going on stage. This is because your body has redirected the blood to your leg muscles so that they can respond faster. This may cause you to feel like you can’t sit still and will again, be wasting more excess energy and calories.
Sleep - When your body is stressed, it won’t want you to sleep. You will no doubt have trouble switching off with more thoughts than usual running through your mind.
All of these fight or flight responses are your body’s natural and intentional way to help you survive a potentially dangerous situation. As you can see, pre-competition nerves can be a great tool to prime your nervous system before you go on stage and fill your body with the adrenaline it needs to flood your muscles with energy.
So, instead of seeing nerves as an unpleasant feeling, use it to your advantage by realizing that your body is primed and ready to go!
How to Deal with Nerves
Now that you know what your body goes through when it’s nervous, there are certain things we can do to use this to your advantage.
First of all, if the competition is important to you, understand and accept that nerves will come. We have established that you will most likely not be hungry before the competition. Fighting this and shoving food down won’t help your body because you won’t be able to digest food properly. Instead, it will make you feel heavy and possibly like you want to throw up.
Instead of forcing yourself to eat, prepare in the days leading up to the competition by fuelling up. This should be helped by the fact that your training should taper off. You should naturally burn fewer calories and therefore have more to store for competition fuel.
On competition day, try to eat a whole food breakfast. As your nerves heighten throughout the day, opt for easy to digest foods such as liquids and fruits. As soon as you’ve finished dancing and your nerves clear up, no doubt you will feel hungry again and can follow up with more whole foods.
In addition to thinking about your food choices, remember that you will lose more fluids than usual if you are nervous. I recommend sipping on sports drinks throughout the day to replace your electrolytes, prevent dehydration and minimize the risk of pre-competition cramps. Alternatively, sprinkle some salt in your water.
Now that we have looked at what is physically happening to your body, we must also consider what you can do to control your mind.
As a dancer and athlete, discipline will already be a big part of your daily life. Leading up to the competition, the mind will often play tricks and doubts will set in. It is at this point that you need to execute mental discipline to take control of your thoughts. There is no point in being physically disciplined if you cannot control it mentally.
I recommend doing this by using breathing techniques.
It might sound clique to stop and take deep breaths when you are stressed. But, it is actually very true. Scientifically, when you are nervous and take deep breaths, it acts to counter your fast heart and breathing rate.
Your body naturally takes short fast breaths when you are stressed to keep energy flowing fast. So, the opposite is then true. When you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, it will relax your nervous system and slow the stress response down.
Lauren’s Breathing Technique
One great technique Lauren used before going on stage to win all of her World Championships was a 4-4-8 breathing technique.
- Breathing in for 4 seconds to fill the lungs as much as possible;
- Holding your breath for 4 seconds; then
- Releasing your breath for 8 seconds.
Techniques like this are great to use in the days and weeks leading up to your competition. It will help to lower your heart rate, calm your body and help you to remain positive so that you can sleep better and don’t waste unnecessary energy.
Then, on competition day, instead of watching the other dancers (which most likely will make you more nervous) find a quiet space to elevate your legs against a wall, play some relaxing music and stay hydrated. Visualize your performance in your head while practicing this 4-4-8 tempo breathing technique.
Use this until around 1 hour out from stage time. Then stand up, go through your warm-up routine and allow the nerves and adrenaline to increase. This will let your body take advantage of the fight or flight response while ensuring that your mind stays completely focused.
A Final Word
Nerves are a great pre-competition tool if used correctly. But, to do that, you must know why they are there and how they affect your body.
I hope this has helped you to understand why you get nervous and how to control all of the natural responses that will happen.
If timed correctly, the fight or flight stress response can be very beneficial to your performance. But, if you are someone who feels nervous weeks out from a competition, it can equally have a negative effect on your performance.
Do not worry about what anyone else is doing around you. Control what you can control and use your nerves to enhance your performance by remembering the most important parts:
Acceptance and Discipline.