Nerves and Fear

I took an exam today. While I knew I had this exam at the beginning of the semester, all this week, and even up until the time of the exam, I was never nervous or anxious. When my professor began to hand out the exam to the people in the front row, I could feel my heart beat faster and my hands begin to sweat. I was nervous.

But why? If you had asked me an hour before the exam if I was nervous I would have said “Absolutely not.” I knew the exam was coming, I knew the material, and I worked hard to prepare. Yet in the moments before I began I felt the effects of nervousness and heard a voice in my head asking “What if you missed something? What if you don’t remember the most important part? What if?”

Nerves and nervousness are effects of fear. They are the effects of fear of the unknown. I was not physically or emotionally afraid of my exam – I was afraid of the unknown aspects of my exam. Fear of the unknown is a natural human emotion. As human beings, we can prepare, understand and cope with what we know. We are unable to do any of those things for something that we are not aware of. Therefore, we are nervous and anxious with a fear of the unknown.

Before every game that is played, it is natural for players to experience nervousness or anxiousness. This is not because the game itself is going to be different or that they are afraid of physical or emotional injury. It is because they do not know what is going to happen. They know the parameters of the game, but they are unable to know what the outcome will be. Fear of the unknown outcome is why players and coaches alike become nervous.

I have been told that the more times you enter competition, the less nervous you get. Is this because you are no longer afraid of the unknown? I would say no. You lose the nerves and anxiety because you get wrapped up in a process and routine that you know and control. This desire for control allows you to plan your actions and your emotions and eliminates the unknown. While the outcome remains unknown, you can plan and dictate your actions in situations that you know you will face. The fear is removed by introducing an element of control.

Control and habit are why sports teams practice, why students study, and why musicians and actors rehearse. These actions are done so that when the unknown happens, people are prepared with actions and counter actions that are certain and known to be successful. Why does “Practice Make Perfect”? Is it because you are doing perfect actions? No, it is because you are conditioning your mind to act in a certain way in the face of a fear of the unknown. Certainty calms the mind and eases nerves.

As a coach, one of your jobs is to introduce certainty. This can be done through film study, practice, motivational speeches, highlight tapes, etc. It is important that your methods fit the temperament and mentality of the team. Addressing this fear and nervousness will help to give you and your team an edge over your opponent – and in situations dealing with an unknown, every edge is important.


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