Blocking With The Head Part 6: Nerves

(This is part 6 of a series looking at the psychology of roller derby. For an introduction, read part one of the Blocking With The Head series)

Welcome back, skate mates! Today we’re going to be exploring the subject of nerves. No, not in the physiology, electrochemical, nerve-fibre sense. In the jelly-legged, butterfly-stomached, “why am I doing this?” sense.

Everyone gets nervous. Even the most experienced and confident of derby skaters can feel the pressure of pre-game jitters, but with experience comes better ways of dealing with those nerves.

Why do we get nervous?

Nervousness is a combination of visceral, physiological response, and our mental and psychological response to those physical feelings. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the term “fight or flight” (and sometimes “or freeze”) – we’ve evolved an adrenaline response to stressful or dangerous situations. A release of adrenaline is just the physical preparation your body needs to successfully take down prey, run from a threat, or out-fight a rival. In the 21st century, in the Western world, we’re unlikely to face these scenarios. But for events which we attach importance to, such as a championship game, we still experience this rush of adrenaline and all the symptoms that go with it.

Adrenaline can be useful. It can make us move faster, hit harder, and achieve things that we struggle to master in a training situation. But our nerves often get out of control. The butterfly stomach can make us feel like we want to throw up, the jelly legs are really counter-productive when you’re on eight wheels, and that feeling of “being under threat” can turn into a very real, very frightening anxiety.

I consider myself very lucky in that the most my nerves give me nowadays is a mild tremor. But for many others, uncontrolled nerves can be a miserable experience and, at times, completely debilitating. Aside from the challenging physical symptoms, pre-game nerves can come with a lot of challenging psychological effects: racing thoughts, catastrophising, difficulty concentrating, and fear of failure. All of these can get in the way not only of you performing at your best, but also of you enjoying the sport that you’ve come to love.

photo courtesy of Martin Quadling Photography

What can we do about it?

The first step is acceptance – nerves can suck, but it’s likely that you will always experience some of its effects. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – you’ve attached importance to the event you’re about to face, and your body is reacting to prepare yourself for it. Accepting that these signs of nerves are normal, rather than fighting against them, can be helpful in tackling the sense of dread that might accompany an upcoming game.

Develop a pre-game ritual to get you in the zone. Much like what I said about confidence, developing a ritual before games can get you into the right mindset, and although it’s not a guaranteed way to banish physical effects of nerves, it may help you focus and feel more in control. Try pre-game meditation (this package from Headspace has been really useful for me!), some visualisation techniques, or put together a pre-game playlist to get you pumped-up and excited, rather than nervous and worried.

Adopt a kaizen approach incremental improvements over time result in long-term, positive changes. See every game-day as an opportunity for learning and growth. Plan, observe and learn – what helped you this time? What didn’t? Things will go wrong, but that’s ok – as long as you are learning from every experience, you can make slow but steady progress towards managing your game-day nerves in a way that works for you. Do your research online, and find different ways that other people deal with game-day nerves. Try them out – not all of them will work for you, but some of them will be really helpful. If you never try, you’ll never know. Keep an open mind, and grow with every new experience!


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Further Reading



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