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Tame The Mental Butterflies

Reprinted from SNS January 2017

Getting rid of the jitters and preparing your mind for competition is just as important as working on a strong physical body

Great athletes recognize that success in competition is built on both physical and mental foundations. The physical component is usually the focus of sport preparation. Athletes go to practice and spend hours perfecting their craft. However, the mental side of sports is often neglected. With a little guidance and some practical tips, anyone can use mental tools to improve sport performance.  

All of us have experienced the nervous fluttering and churning in our stomach prior to important competitions. Our bodies naturally react to what our minds know is the big game or race with increased muscle tension, sweaty palms or butterflies. “Oh no,” we may think, “I’m nervous and may not be ready.”

Actually, the feeling of butterflies isn’t the issue. It’s the interpretation of the feeling that matters most. Jack Donohue, a Canadian Olympic basketball coach, says, “It’s not a case of getting rid of the butterflies, it’s a question of getting them to fly in formation.”

How can we get the butterflies to facilitate our performance rather than inhibit our performance? Here are a few thoughts on how to harness the butterflies. 

See It Happen

Feeling nervous often comes from the unknown. 

Athletes can use imagery to create experiences in their minds ahead of time before the experiences actually happen in the moment of competition. This allows athletes a sense of comfort with the situation when it actually occurs. Simply put, if you have already imagined it, the comfort level increases.

“I am a big believer in visualization. I run my races mentally so I feel even more prepared,” says United States Olympic track gold medalist Allyson Felix. 

Imagining success before it happens is a powerful tool. An athlete must use more than a visual exercise to create a powerful image. In order to make the imagery most useful, it should incorporate sights, sounds, smells, emotions, kinesthetic feelings and even the sense of touch.

Prior to competition, wheelchair athletes should imagine:

   1) Successful performances such as being on the podium, receiving a trophy or celebrating with the team

    2) Specific techniques such as free throws, controlling the chair around the track corners in a race or punching the push-rim on the chair to accelerate in a race

   3) Reactions to potential adversity such as a poor call from a referee, falling out of your chair/tipping over or falling behind early in a race or game


Aubrey Newland, PhD, is a professor of sport and exercise psychology at California State University, Chico, in California.


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Tame The Mental Butterflies


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