Nerves and excitement - two words often used to describe that familiar feeling of “butterflies” or “jitters” before a big tryout, game or event.
It’s a feeling that becomes more and more common as players advance to high level of sports, and it’s one that is critical for players to learn how to manage in order to perform at their best.
“You have to create energy with your nerves and use that to go out and compete harder and play to the top of your ability,” said Minnesota Hockey District 9 Coach-in-Chief Josh Storm. “Those are important things because you’re going to have nerves your whole life playing, whether it’s a big game or a big tryout.”
Here are four tips on how to utilize nerves in a positive way.
Support Your Teammates
When nerves creep in, first instinct is often to begin worrying about the either the unknown or the outcome of the upcoming game or tryout. One of the best ways to counteract those fears is by turning your attention outward.
“Be a great teammate, help those other people,” said Storm, who is entering his eighth season as the boys’ high school coach in Owatonna. “If you have those nerves, some of your buddies have the same feeling. When they make good plays, encourage them. Encourage your teammates and encourage your friends and the people that you’re with.”
Making a concerted effort to support those around you not only helps distract from your own nerves, but it helps calm the entire team and raises everyone’s comfort level. Players known for being great teammates are also recognized by coaches and can benefit players' overall evaluation in tryouts.
Another key to overcoming anxiety is finding a way to get into a rhythm as soon as you hit the ice.
“In those games where you’re nervous or anxious, especially when we have young guys who step on the ice for the first time before tryouts or before games, I always tell our guys to go engage in contact,” said Storm. “Whether it’s bumping at the Squirt level or getting into the corners and winning some battles or finishing checks, those things initiate our bodies into competing at a high level.”
When players get involved in contact situations, it forces them to mentally engage in the task at hand, melting away any nerves that may remain. Plus, winning a couple of one-on-one battles is a great way to start a game or tryout on a positive note.
“You have to get into those spots where you can win little battles,” said Storm. “You can start feeling good about yourself and about your game and build a little confidence. When you're confident, you play really well.”
Focus on Playing, Not Pressure
Pressure is often the culprit when nerves hit their peak. Storm remembers putting a lot of pressure on himself to perform, especially during tryouts, back in his playing days.
“When I got rid of some of that pressure off myself, I had probably the best tryout of my career,” said Storm.
Today, Storm emphasizes two key points to help kids relieve any pressure they may feel. The first is to do your best to understand the outcome is often somewhat out of our control and isn’t worth worrying about. The second, and most important, is to focus on just playing the game and having fun with it because that’s when kids typically play to the best of their ability.
“Just let go of some of the anxiety, and think, I’m standing on a sheet of ice, with my buddies, playing a really, really fun game,” said Storm. “Enjoy it, rather than stress about what’s going to happen later.”
A Long Term Attitude
It’s also critical for kids (and their parents) to understand the outcome of tryouts or the big game fueling those nerves isn’t nearly as important as we often make them out to be inside our own heads.
Storm emphasizes this is particularly true about tryouts when it’s easy to get wrapped up in who is making what team.
“You don’t have to make the team you’re really stretching for to have a great experience,” said Storm, who noted he’s seen a number lower level youth players become key contributors at the high school level. "Whether it’s an “A” team, a “B” team or a “C” team, it’s just a letter at that point.”
“You’re playing hockey. It should be an enjoyable and fun experience. The level you play at should not matter as much as the actual playing itself.”