Nervousness – what does it feel like to you? It’s one of those common terms and phrases that we all intuitively know and use, but we don’t always pause to examine a little closer. What does your body feel like when you feel nervous? Do you experience tightness in your chest or your shoulders? Are there thought patterns that repeat in your mind? Sensations that feel uncomfortable or unpleasant?

Nervousness tends to be equated with negativity. It tends to be thought of as something that inhibits us from our goals and our actions. But it seems to exist more on a spectrum, and it may not be nervousness itself that prevents us from performing. Too much of it can certainly be overwhelming, bombarding us with emotions and cognitions that can make us feel like we’ve never accomplished anything in our lives and we have no chance of current success. A little nervousness may not be such a bad thing. It can be a signal from your body that you’re about to step into the unknown, a future moment in which your performance is about to unfold. You care about something, or someone, and are about to shift from the future into the present. In precompetition, nervousness is common. So how can we reframe this experience to young athletes to help them manage it and prevent them from being overwhelmed?

The first step is to help young athletes understand that nervousness is normal. Acceptance of feelings is at the foundation of most current optimal performance training theory. We start by accepting where we are. Helping young athletes begin by sharing that it’s okay to feel how you’re feeling. Wanting to get rid of emotion does not usually work. As a coach, this is counter to our tendency to want to fix things right away. You may have found yourself saying to a young athlete, “don’t be nervous.” It may be a better approach to help your players accept how they’re feeling by sharing that “it’s okay to be nervous.” It may seem paradoxical, but from a point of acceptance, change can then often occur quickly and efficiently.

It’s important to take time to train athletes to monitor their feelings and thoughts off the field, learning what nervousness feels like, how it comes up – and then learn how to manage it. Mindfulness training off the field helps normalize the experience of feeling something uncomfortable, which can immediately make any experience easier to handle when it occurs under stress. Encouraging your athletes to spend a few minutes a day off the field mindfully noticing, breathing, or listening to what’s around them can strengthen their capacity to bring themselves back to the present moment during competition. This serves as the foundation of self-regulation. Self-talk and breathing strategies are then taught so that an athlete has something to lean on in moments of nervousness before performing. Once the feeling has been accepted, cognitions can be brought to a more positive place with self-talk, and attentive breathing can help narrow an athlete’s focus to a learned and practiced task. One of the most challenging aspects of nervousness is when it becomes overwhelming. Awareness and acceptance first, followed by self-regulation strategies, can help young athletes learn to handle nervousness before it overwhelms them.