Managing Performance Anxiety

In my last post, “Top 9 Benefits of Competing,” I talked briefly about how competing in Weightlifting teaches you to control your body’s response to stressful situations, and I gave a few methods to utilize during competition. Managing performance anxiety, however, is not just about closing your eyes and breathing. While it is critical to learn how to slow down and shut out the world around you as you prepare to take your attempts, it is the extended lead-up to those moments that matters most when attempting to not just minimize and manage performance anxiety, but thrive despite it. In today’s post, I will discuss the methods I have found to be most impactful in preparing the mind and controlling the body’s response to set yourself up for a successful competition.

Confidence-building and routine-setting in training

Grow your confidence in technique  While I would argue that most people who have been consistently training the olympic lifts for a few months are ready to take on their first competition, it is important that the athlete feels comfortable in their technique before getting on stage. The goal of the first competition for a beginner weightlifter is not to hit PRs, but to get in 6 solid attempts at weights they are comfortable lifting. This means that optimizing technique and making every rep look and feel the same must be the main priority in training. For intermediate and advanced lifters who have thousands of reps under their belt, confidence in technique will likely already be there at the lighter weights. However, that does not mean that warm-up attempts should be taken any less seriously, or be approached any differently than a max effort attempt. No rep, regardless of the weight on the bar, should be a throwaway.

Practice “rituals” that are replicable in competition  The way you train in the gym should not differ from the way you lift in competition. You do not want to introduce anything new the day of competition. Learning which rituals or routines work best for you in training allows for feelings of comfort and control in an environment that is new and most likely hectic. Routine-setting is not limited to how you approach reps. It is everything leading up to it, from the methods you use to get into your mindset on the way to the gym, to your stretching and warm-up routine, to your bar warm-up, to your setup routine, to the attempts you take leading up to a max lift, and the overall mindset you tap into for optimal focus. Using the approaches that you have found to work best for you in training allow for both mental and physical familiarity in competition. The goal here is to make competition day feel like just another day in your home gym.

Learn to come back from a missed lift in training  It’s easy to get frustrated when you miss a lift in training. However, do yourself a favor and keep lifting. Take a moment, get your head right, and get right back after it. Do not let missed lifts affect your mindset. It is inevitable that you will miss a lift on the competition stage at one point if you’re competing long enough and pushing your boundaries to reach your full potential. In competition, if you miss a lift, you need to have the confidence in your abilities to bounce back. Remember that resilience we discussed in our last post? That’s learned in training.

Hit weights above 85% before competition  You don’t have to do it often, but it is helpful to hit your opening attempts, at minimum, at least one week before competition. There should be no doubts in your mind when you are approaching your first lift on the competition platform, and knowing that you’ve hit at least your openers in training allows you to approach your first weight with confidence. If you are using our app to prepare for a competition, you will work up to 100% in both lifts 1-2 weeks prior.

Week of competition

Get adequate sleep  Sleep plays a major role in your ability to maximize potential. Inadequate sleep can lead to feelings of fatigue, low energy, and poor focus. During the week of a competition, aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. A few tips to improve your sleep include: avoiding caffeine at least 5 hours before bedtime, swapping out screens (cell phones, tablets, computers, television) for a book before bed, and sticking to a routine sleeping schedule.

Manage stress levels  During the week of a competition, you will want to eliminate stressors. Of course there will be things that are out of your control, but consciously make an effort to control what you can in your environment to minimize as much stress as possible. For example, avoid rushing in the morning, overcommitting to plans, and taking on more than you can handle at work. Clear your calendar for the week, learn to say “no,” and make the competition your main focus.

Prioritize adequate nutrition and hydration  We could write a whole post just on this topic, as competing often means cutting to your weight class. However, if this is your first competition, you likely will not be concerning yourself with cutting weight. If you are not cutting, make sure you are properly fueled with quality foods all week (and hydrated!), especially the day before the competition. Food is your energy source, use it to your advantage. If you are cutting for the competition, you should be dialing-in your nutrition months prior for a slow and steady cut to ensure maintenance of strength and energy levels. Regardless of whether or not you are cutting, however, make sure to stay consistent with the foods you are eating. As the theme runs throughout this post, do not introduce anything new to your diet the week of or day of competition.

Prepare your mind  The mind is a powerful tool. Knowing how to prepare mentally can make or break peak performance. Though individual preferences vary, you can improve your preparation by: maintaining a positive attitude, setting high but realistic goals, using positive self-talk, watching personal videos of successful lifts, and setting aside time to meditate and visualize. The last method has improved my mental game significantly. My personal “competition eve” routine comprises of taking a hot bath (epsom salts and essential oils help to ease the body and mind), closing my eyes, putting on my competition music playlist, and playing out the entire day in my mind, from weigh-ins to my last lift. This method not only reduces my stress levels and helps me get restful sleep, but visualizing a successful performance improves my confidence for the day of competition and helps give me that “familiarity” feeling I mentioned in the beginning of the article. When I step onto the platform, I have already taken and made the lift. All I have to do is execute.

Day of competition

Don’t rush  Give yourself enough time to wake up and prepare for the day. If you want a low stress day, don’t start it by running around frantically. Have everything you need set out the night before so that when you wake up, all you need to do is go about your normal morning routine.

Fuel yourself properly  After weigh-ins, be sure to eat something with both carbs and protein and properly hydrate. As the message has been throughout this post, don’t eat anything that you’re not used to, even if you’ve been cutting for a month and are eying that donut. Just wait until you’re finished lifting, and then you can eat to your heart and belly’s desire.

Get in the “right” mindset  This is different for everyone. It has taken me 2+ years of competing to identify which approach and methods work best for me. Over time, I have found that I need to stay light-minded up until I am starting my warmups. This means that I’m not putting on my “focus” music playlist immediately after weigh-ins or am shutting myself out to the world around me. Up until I begin my warmup, I interact with the world as I would any other day. I chat with teammates, watch people lift, and most importantly, I smile often. Keeping a positive mindset is key to controlling nerves. Once it is time to warm up, tap into that routine you established in training. You’ve already prepared your stretching, warmup, and mindset ritual. Now is not the time to try a new stretch you saw on Instagram the night before. Stick to the script.

Trust your movement  The day of competition also is not the time to change your movement pattern, or try to correct a technical deficiency. You are not going to change anything to your lifts the day of competition. You have already put in the work, now you simply have to trust your movement and stick to 1-2 cues that you have already established are helpful for you.

Put faith in your coach  If you’re competing, it is ideal to have a coach with you. Someone that you trust. They will be the one counting the cards and telling you when to take warm-up attempts. Ensure that you have someone on your side who knows what they are doing so that you do not have to think about anything other than lifting. If you do not have a coach, make sure to have someone by your side who has at least competed before.

Shut out stimuli  Being able to shut out the stimuli around you is a learned skill. Some trusted methods include: putting on music, silencing your phone, not concerning yourself about what other people in your session are warming up with, avoiding watching others lift, and not worrying about the weight on the bar. This is one of the few times you can be completely selfish, thinking about yourself and only yourself. Do not concern yourself with the events happening around you. The only thing you should be concerned with is breathing, doing your movements, and making your lifts.

Now go forth and dominate. And remember, it’s just another day of training.