Nerves, doubts, confidence and competition – Motivation by Mark Schwab

There’s no doubt that a paramount key to coaching and helping athletes to compete and exist to their greatest potential, is assisting them in managing their thoughts. While it can be good to go inside our thinking for awareness and reflection, to stay for too long is trouble. It is especially detrimental when it comes to competition. Thinking is almost like robbing a bank. You want to get in, take what you need quickly, then get out and don’t go back for awhile. If you stay too long in the bank of your mind, it’s dangerous. You will go to prison, a self-constructed prison.

About Mark Schwab My point is that we need to stay vigilant and watchful for athletes and that may be spending too much time in their own thoughts. As an athlete, you need to be observant over your own thoughts too. When we stay in our thoughts too long we manufacture problems, doubts, concerns and fears. The key is balance. Remember, wrestling is a feel sport. Practice and training is the time for thinking and, simplicity should surround competition.

Self Confidence

In reality, everyone struggles with self-confidence at times and it may not be a conscious struggle. We might act in ways that belie the internal tussle or say things that contradict, hide or bury it under layers of talk and bravado. But, the struggle for confidence is a human thing. Most of us are fragile, regardless of our exterior, and athletes are no different.

Wrestling presents its own unique paradox with regard to self confidence. The very factors that can shake one’s confidence are also the factors that can build it. It’s unnerving to perform in front of people, especially when it’s as grueling a sport as this. All eyes are on you and you are being evaluated, judged and ultimately determined to be the winner or loser. This is part of any individual sport and it’s what you sign-up for when you wrestle. However, these factors can wear away at self confidence. On the other hand, you have a lot of control over your own results in wrestling and that can be very rewarding. In fact, the element of individual control is why many are drawn to it in the first place. You don’t have to rely on others with your results.

While part of the athlete’s confidence will be developed by physical training and preparation, managing nerves and thoughts is a separate form of preparation and a separate form of coaching.

It’s easy to have confidence when you know you’re going to win, but what about when you don’t? What about when you’re uncertain? This is exactly where most athletes spend their time, especially when they compete at a high-level. College wrestling becomes much more mental as the athlete evolves from a freshman to a senior. Managing thoughts does not get any easier during this time. In my experience, as the athlete gets older, they think more and it’s rarely to their favor. As coaches, we almost want the athlete to stay naive enough to still believe in Santa Clause. We want them to hold on to the dreams they started with and not surrender because of invalid thinking.

Everyone has their kryptonite; no one is exempt. If you put anyone under a spotlight and ask them to face pressure, adversity, fatigue, emotions, not getting their way etc., then maintaining poise becomes difficult. It’s really about keeping the thoughts balanced, managed and employing prevention. The victor is often the one who can direct their thoughts.


So much of living a quality life is about having a long memory for the good and a short memory for the bad. You may be asking yourself, how do we develop this way of thinking in ourselves or the athletes we coach? It’s not easy, but it is feasible. To do so, we must take action. Athletes have to be a human owl. That means being aware, with the ability to reflect and identify, so they can practice prevention. We won’t eliminate doubts and nerves, but we can prevent the type of thinking that: Saps our liveliness; clouds our thoughts; renders us to half speed; disables us from being in control of our body movements; leaves us unable to pull the trigger of offense or employ defense; fabricates injuries and in some cases works to avoid competition altogether; this is fear at its extreme and it’s alive and well.

What is the real cause of fear? Some of it’s built in, necessary for survival and perfectly normal. However, what about the athlete that becomes paralyzed by their fear to the point of fatigue, or experiences nerves that will not give them their best opportunity to succeed, or encounters anxiety that cause them to yield to their competitors, not so much because they are actually better, but because untrue thinking has embezzled their effectiveness?

When nerves are at full mast we worry, burn energy and are unable to stop moving and adjust focus. When negative thoughts are escalated, we will have a tougher time choosing and managing our thinking and energy. It’s easy to think defeating thoughts; they happen on their own. Alternatively, we can all manage our thoughts, but we have to work at it and not expect perfection and complete elimination of these thoughts. The bottom line is, an athlete can have nerves and doubts and still prevail. This might be the most important sentence in this article, so I will say it again. An athlete can have nerves and doubts and still prevail.

You are more than wrestling

My personal opinion is that most of us base our self-worth on our results. When we win, we feel valuable. When we lose, we feel less valuable. Some of this is real and some is not. As a coach, we try to help athletes balance their thoughts. We won’t eliminate this course of thinking, but we can help the athlete to supervise it. So, how do we do this?

First and foremost is that athletes need to know that they are more than their wrestling results. They, you and I are not exclusively defined by freaking wrestling. This is one area of life. Wrestling will always be with us, but the present needs our attention. You have to be able to move on or suffer the penalties of not being able to move on. The inability to move on after a loss or a setback often results in self-destruction of various kinds.

I’m not minimizing the influence of our great sport. In my opinion, there is no better way to prepare a human for life than the sport of college wrestling. Put it this way, wrestling will test athletes in a way that the classroom rarely will. I really don’t remember anything I learned in a college classroom. Like most, I just memorized for test day. However, I do remember my relationships, coaches, trials, challenges, success, experiences, growth, rewards, etc.

No sport compares to college wrestling as far as effort, discipline, day in and day out grind, inconvenience, restraint, emotional and physical extremes, loneliness, isolation, and the roller-coaster of family emotional involvement. In spite of this, athletes need to understand that a loss is not catastrophic. Life goes on whether or not we choose to move on with it.

I know loss hurts. We all know it hurts and I’m certainly not diminishing the importance. What I’m saying is a lot of athletes entertain the possibility of loss before they lose. They sabotage themselves with nerves and doubts before the competition, eroding their effectiveness; this can be managed and reversed.

For the wrestlers reading this right now, I want you to consider these facts: The current world population is over seven billion, the current U.S. population is roughly 314,165, 191 people. This means that there are approximately 314, 165, 100 people who don’t know if you won or lost today. I share this with you to help you put into perspective the pressure, doubts and fear you bathe yourself in–let it go! Take the shackles off and rumble. You’re still a solid and valuable individual. You can still keep your name and you will have multiple opportunities to rework your unfavorable results.

The role of parents and coaches

I frequently hear people ask, “What’s wrong with that kid?” More often than not, it’s faulty mind management and it’s not the athlete’s fault. Still, there are actions athletes can take to manage what erroneous and negative thinking will do to their performance. They give way too much in this sport to hand over points and wins to opponents because of nerves and doubts. Nerves and doubts have to be addressed.

At a minimum, we need to let the athletes know that the mind can be managed and we need to point them in the direction to do so. Confidence and nerves, by far, have been the overwhelming reason why most wrestlers I know have not given themselves the greatest opportunity to succeed.

We all want what’s best for the athlete and to provide them with opportunities for success. Nonetheless, some of us coaches create or contribute to the anxiety and doubts of our athletes. There are many parents that impede their child’s opportunity to succeed as well. Often the coaches blame the parents and the parents blame the coaches. At times, both may be right. I will give you a personal coaching example.

In 2006 at the national open in Las Vegas, I was sitting in my Brother Doug’s corner. I sat in his corner at every competition from 2001-2006. Also sitting in Doug’s corner was current University of Iowa Head Coach, Tom Brands. Doug lost the first period 6-0 to Jesse Janzen. I said some things that certainly didn’t help Doug compete. He did win the next two periods and the match, but something changed that day for me as a coach. Tom and I exchanged words throughout the day. In my heart of hearts, I knew he was right. Tom stated that he couldn’t effectively sit in Terry’s corner for multiple reasons either.

The bottom line is Tom realized he was not the best person to be in Terry’s corner and I realized the same for Doug. I never sat in Doug’s corner again, and in 2007 and 2008 Doug made the world team, won the national open, and made the Olympic team. Was my absence in his corner the reason? Not solely, but there is certainly something to it. My point is that coaches and parents are wise to take a look at how they affect their athletes and their children in this sport. We may unknowingly be doing damage with words, body language, or project our own worry, fears or anxiety onto the athlete. It’s not supposed to be about us–the coaches and parents–it’s supposed to be about the athletes. I believe it’s worth the time to examine the communication and personal interactions in the days leading up to, and the day of, competition. Are the athletes competing to their best ability? If not, a look in this direction may help your situation; it certainly did mine.

To summarize, remember that thoughts can be managed to encourage opportunities for success. Self-reflection is essential, but keep in mind that one must move on; the present needs your attention. Further, don’t spend too much time in your own thoughts or you will create worries and doubts. Finally, don’t forget to keep it simple. Practice and training are the time for thinking, but everything that surrounds competition should be uncomplicated and positive.

Nerves 101

Nerves, doubts and competition go together. You want to feel heightened, excited, and energized, but too much too long will have adverse effects. Your responsibility is to learn to manage your nerves and thinking.

  • When do the overwhelming nerves and thoughts make their appearance?
    Example-Days prior to competition, after weigh-ins, right before your match, or around certain people?
  • What happens to you when the nerves and thoughts are at full throttle?
    Example-Constantly moving around, can’t sit still, unable to focus, doubts, questioning your ability?

Once you know when you’re most susceptible to detrimental nerves and thoughts and exactly what’s happening, you can begin to make the adjustments.

  • Find a non stimulating place to sit down and relax
  • Slow your breathing down-cultivate a breathing routine
  • Find someone to talk to away from everyone else who can help you decompress.
  • Stay out of the competitive arena. A coach can keep you advised of your on deck / in-the-hole status.
  • Come up with a self-talk script that is constructive
  • This is not a fight. Take it easy and remember you don’t open a flower with a sledge hammer.

The bottom line is each athlete needs to find a routine that works for them. Nerves and doubts will always be there and can be helpful, but if you wind up wearing yourself out or the nervousness and doubts will not allow you to pull the trigger and compete to your potential, then we will help you change your current habits. The idea is to balance your nerves and thoughts so they serve you well and are not an obstacle.

The real key is the awareness, changing your behavior, and keeping this simple.

Mark Schwab is an assistant coach at the University of Northern Iowa. Schwab has a Masters Degree with an emphasis on Sport Psychology and is currently writing a book entitled “Opportunities to Succeed-Common Sense but Not Common Practice.” Schwab also gives a 40 minute presentation on opportunities to succeed. To know more you can email him at for details.