Archive for March, 2008


Competitions and Nervous Figure Skaters

March 3, 2008

I coached at a local competition here in the Midwest yesterday.  I’m helping my two adult skaters prepare for Adult Nationals in April.

Both skaters skated very well with just a few minor mistakes and both won their events.  I was very proud of them.  But it was interesting that both of them were disappointed immediately after their performances, mostly due to “nervous lapses” that they virtually never have in practice.

Being nervous about competition seems to be nearly universal in our sport.  And this nervousness and anxiety is probably the number one cause of poor or sub-par performances by our skaters.

I would say the odds strongly favor skaters that minimize their nervous response during competition.  A small minority of skaters really love the experience of competing and step up their performance accordingly.  These are those rare “super performers” we love to coach.  But the vast majority of skaters have undesirable responses, as most coaches struggle to keep their skaters calm and collected.

All this brings up an important observation that almost nobody seems to address in the world of figure skating.  The observation is this:  Nervousness, anxiety, and worry are all basically fear-based emotions. 

What exactly are our skaters afraid of?

If we could address exactly what they’re afraid of, doesn’t it follow that they won’t be nervous?  And they’ll start having better and better performances?

It appears most coaches and sports psychologists believe that this nervousness and anxiety is normal.  Most sports psychologists tend to focus on tools and techniques to help the skater manage the nervousness, rather than address the underlying reasons behind it.  And most figure skating coaches are completely inequiped to deal with it, considering almost no coaches have formal training in this area.

Regardless, most coaches handle it the best they can based on their own experiences.  Obviously some coaches are better at managing their skaters’ emotions than others.  Many coaches recommend lots of competitions to nervous skaters to get them to naturally conquer their fear.

But what exactly are skaters nervous about?  Are they worried about embarrassing themselves?  Or embarrassing their parents, families, coaches or friends?

Embarrassment is a form of shame or a painful feeling arising from something perceived as dishonorable.  When stated in those terms, it’s hard to believe skaters think of their sub-par performances as “dishonorable.”  But it’s almost certainly the fear of embarrassment that causes them to be nervous.

From my own experience, very few skaters actually feel intense emotional pain after a poor performance.  Sure, they feel disappointment but they quickly realize they made a good effort (most of the time) and nobody’s opinion of them or those they care about was permanently damaged.

Instead they worry and fret ahead of time about the emotional pain they will suffer or will inflict on  someone they love or respect.  But even after their worst performances they don’t feel that much discomfort.  The worry about the feeling is much worse than the feeling!

If we’re truly interested in helping our skaters have outstanding performances and develop important life skills through skating, we really need to start addressing this.  How can we convince our skaters they have nothing to fear?  Coaches, skaters and parents, I’d love to know what you think about all this.  Please leave a comment below.

Trevor Laak