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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

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27 comments

  1. As a skater, I try not to worry about everything. When I go out there I’m not thinking what happens if I mess up this jump, or that the girl who skated before me looked very strong; instead, I just go out there and skate. I smile and just skate. I look at the judges, I don’t shy away from them. I rarely feel nervous in competition.

    As a coach, I try to distract my most nervous students. At a competition this year I had one girl who was really freaking out. She was so nervous, she was ready to scratch entirely. So, after her warm-up (there were six skaters before she went on), I gave her a packet of crackers from the concession stand and she squeezed it in her hands and broke the crackers to pieces. She did this with a couple packets and the act of squeezing and squishing them up, plus not focusing on the skaters who were going before her, really helped calm her down. Once she relaxed and just breathed, she did fine.

    But, that’s all I’ve got; any other ideas, I’d love to hear!


  2. I know that as I got older, the realization of just how much money was put into one competition really made an impact on how I felt afterwards. Hundreds of dollars are put into competitions and if you don’t do well you have another sense of guilt on top of all of the other psychological issues.


  3. I think there are many underlying factors in skaters becoming nervous. Some are nervous due to external facotrs such as parent pressure. I think some parents increase the pressure on a child to perform well which the end result is the child becoming nervous at competition to perform well. As a coach I truely try to stress to the child that they will skate there best when it is for themselves an not for their parents or families in the stands.

    I think skaters also measure there progress on how they perform, if they constantly place last due to sub-par performances they tend to become more nervous with each passing competition, no one likes to constantly perform bad and place low due to nerves.

    In Sports Psychology there are many studies showing that external factors are generally the cause of nerves, and once those are eliminated the nervousness goes down. I would suggest that for coaches to find that external factor that makes their skater the most nervous and try to deal with that factor. If a parent is putting unrealistic pressure on a skater, talk with that parent and let them know, that the added pressure hurts their child, and is not helping. Sometimes skaters become nervous when everyone is staring at them. Try to make that situation positive. Say yes everyone is staring at you and admiring you for all your courage to step on the ice. I know personally sitting in the stands I admire each skater that takes the ice, yes I critic the technical (I am a coach), but I never sit there looking at a skater wanting them to perform badly. I think skaters need to increase their positive thinking and try not to have the negative thoughts.

    These are my opinions from my skating, coaching, and my degree in psychology.


  4. As an adult skater, I recognize that my being so nervous before a test session is ridiculous but that doesn’t help me. In my occupation, I deal with life and death situations and injuries all the time and I try to say to myself “this is nothing” compared to ______. (you fill in the blank).

    There have been a number of articles written about this topic. A study by Koestner, Lacaille and Whipple found that the type of goal selected by a musician may be associated with the outcome of the performance. Intrinsic goals such as (Enjoy the experience! Have fun during the performance!) and mastery goals (“Learn from the experience/focus on what you have to do) helped more than performance goals(impress others/have a perfect performance).


  5. As a performing musician I am very familiar with performance anxiety. I found that even after 30 years of performing I would still shake. I use a system called Internal Energy Plus™ it has helped me to practice and perform exactly how I had practiced the music.
    In Consistency
    Tom
    http://thomasckern.blogspot.com


  6. Nervousness is FEAR
    I think that there are various reasons for skaters being nervous/AFRAID.
    Fear of failure and of not producing what is expected of them.
    Fear of the most difficult element/elements which maybe shouldn’t be included yet!
    Fear perhaps from past experiences of injury.
    Fear of not being able to get through their program well enough.
    There are a host of reasons for being nervous and to a certain extent it is normal but if there is too much anxiety then you need to know how to go up or down with special individual exercises to help this feeling and get it to the right working level where the skater can perform at their best.
    Lorna Brown
    Fear of the amount of money a parent or possibly
    single parent is spending on the cost of it.
    Fear of loosing if they are at the top of their tree.


  7. I was a very nervous competitor, and even a nervous
    tester/partner for a long time. I do think that lots
    of tests and competitions and exhibitions help because you don’t get into that “this is my only chance” and “all my training is for this one moment”
    mode. I think it’s good to skate in many different
    rinks and on different kinds of ice, so that you stop
    thinking that you need a certain kind of ideal surface just to perform normally. Also, preparing a
    lot and having your stamina in good shape helps your
    confidence. I do think sensitivity and hyperactive im-
    agination don’t help; but (honestly)imagination &
    sensitivity are too good in other areas, just to wish
    them away; there’s more to Life than just skating.


  8. All the comments on this blog are very insightful from different perspectives.

    For me, s a competitor, I used to pace after the warm-up before I competed and wear a walkman (now I am dating myself), to distract myself yet tune in at the same time.

    I remember Norma Sahlin asking me what I was so nervous about and I said “I have to compete!” Her question and answer to me was very simple and I use it with my students today. The question is: “is there anything in this routine that you can’t do?” the answer from the skater should be an obvious “no” if their routine is in fact at their ability. Sometimes this is too simple.

    I learned that if you have done your training, competition is the time to be relieved that it is finally over for that event and enjoy the fact that you have the ice all to yourself (or with your partner) so go have a blast!

    Competing is like taking an exam with your body. If you study – typically you will do well. I help my students relate to this and remind them that they are doing this for themselves and not for anyone else. There are unmeasurable outside influences that can affect a performance as well as internal. The best thing you can try to do is anticipate them and discuss them when possible with the student and the parent. It is also helpful to do a pseudo-performance before the event which includes hair, outfit make-up etc. If there is not some type of performance “nervousness” it would be unnatural. The goal I try for is to turn it into controlled excitement instead of chaotic anxiety

    Everyone has good and bad days, it is part of life, especially when your passion is choosing to compete or just practice figure skating (an extremely difficult sport), whatever your level.


  9. I used to get extremely nervous before competitions and shows (I skate in my rink’s ice shows). One day, I had an epiphany-everyone sitting in the audience is there because they want to be there to see their dear one skate! They are the moms & dads, grandmas & grandpas, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, etc. They are there to support their skater with love! Since then, I’ve treated every competition as my solo “act” in front of “the family” and it has helped me immensely. By the way, I’m 46 and have been competing for only the past 3 years but I’ve been in shows for 5.


  10. I’m a 20-something year old skater. As a child I did musical performances and I was extremely nervous about them and did awfully, but this was because of parent pressure. As I grew up and started dancing and did competitions because *I* wanted to do them, I did great. Same thing with skating competitions, except skating is even easier because withdrawing is – theoretically – an option through a lack of partner and that gives me, personally, a sense of freedom. I do competitions for myself and only myself, nobody else!
    Also I find doing very extensive hair, nails and make-up rituals (read: fussing with it for two hours) really helps with the nerves as well, because I can then think the whole thing through rationally.
    Plus, nerves can be your best friend, it’s okay to be a little nervous, it gives you an edge in the performance – honestly! So don’t be afraid of getting nervous!!!


  11. I am one of those odd ducks who, despite my advanced age (58) and minimal skill, take to the ice with confidence and “attitude”. (I have my attack of nerves about a week before hand at the very thought of taking to the ice ALONE in front of all those people – I am literally a “basket case” for a day or two.) But by competition I am totally focused – it is the culmination of a year’s work and I am going to give it everything I have! My first-ever competition was at the national level last spring and the coach asked me how I was feeling just as my name was announced. I replied “I am going to OWN this place for the next 3 minutes!” and off I went!

    I don’t know how I do it – if I did, I’d bottle it and sell it – LOL!


  12. As a skater, my fear is of failure.
    And not only failure but dissapointing my dad who knows how much i love and have a passion for skating.
    I love my dad so much and it just scares me sometimes.
    I actually haven’t ever competed but i can ALREADY tell that im going to be one of those that is always nervous.
    Thanks for the blog.


    • Rophia,

      You have a wonderful attitude.
      Go out there, give the performance everything you’ve got, and skate for yourself and your dad.

      If you now you’ve done your best, no matter what the results are, you have NOT failed!

      Skate because you love it.

      You will do great.


  13. I think nervousness is a learned thing. A competitor expects to be nervous, so she is. It also comes from a desire to do well, which is a good desire.

    The trick is to unlearn the expectation and enforce the desire. I think it comes through practice and visualization. During practices, the competitor should visualize the crowd, the judges, the atmosphere. Yeah, it sounds cheesy, but it prepares a person for those situations. Then visualize calm and peace. Skate. Rinse. Repeat.


  14. Trying to totally eliminate the nervousness will clearly not work. I coach public speakers, athletes, and leaders on various aspects. The number one fear of American’s is public speaking. Everyone gets butterflies, whether just prior to a competitive skating event or speaking in front of their 1000 closest friends. The trick is not to get rid of the butterflies, but to get them to fly in formation. The speaker who has no butterflies is the one who will forget a key element of their speech or address the wrong issues.

    So it is with competitive skating. Controlling the intensity is a technique I’ve worked on with pitchers, skaters, and leaders. I use a model I’ve developed called the F*I*R*E model
    Focus
    Intensity
    Relaxation
    Execution

    All the best for success in your skating endeavors!!! Skate on!

    Bruce G.,PsyD.


  15. As a skater, i have always gone into competitions extremely nervous. my nerves are always becuase i’m afraid of failure and that i have had some not so good performances and not wanting to repeat them. my nerves hinder my performance, and i realized if i just wouldn’t let myself think that i might majorly messup my program then i would do fine and perform just as well as i do in practice. now i just let myself think only of positives when going into competitions and i skate a lot better without the thoughs of failure. and i set goals for myself to meet, other than thinking about the other skaters i am competing against.
    just remember to stay positive and to not dwell on fears of failure.


  16. Great book for this:

    “Inside Edge” by Dr. Peter Jensen (Sport Psych)…mental training is so important! (I.e. Emanuel Sandhu)


  17. Nerves are my undoing. I can skate a fabulous practice, but the day of an event, I just cannot get my legs under me. Not matter what I tell myself, no matter how much I stretch and relax… I literally shake. It’s visible to spectators. I cannot “calm down”. I can’t get my feet under me -and what is generally a routine, flawless skate is a disaster. My knees don’t bend so I have no flow and there’s lots of that lovely toe-pick sound. I’m not afraid of failing and my “failure” effects no one but me. How do I combat this? I’m not a basket case off the ice,but once I step on the ice – the shakes begin. How do you totally focus and “sell” the performance? When I’m skating, I’m not thinking about skating or being nervous during the performance – I just want to get thru it.


  18. i have a daugther that is a gymnast. She is a level 10. She has a lot of talent and practice well but when she is in competition she does not do well. We have state meet in two weeks what mental exercise we could do during her workout that will help her to performe better. Please help us.


  19. […] the original here: Competitions and Nervous Figure Skaters Posted in General Tags: events, figure-skating, focus-on-tools, performance, performances, […]


  20. Hi Trevor,
    I would like to share your article in our newsletter. I am a board member for the San Diego Figure Skating Club and I was wondering if that would be okay. If not, that is fine, but wanted to ask. It’s a great article! To include some comments, There is a helpful book out there (that may be out of date) called “Getting Rid of the Jitters”. I use some these helpful hints to help my students. One is knocking it down to size. If you can think of the worst case scenario and ask yourself if you can live with that outcome, it usually takes the “hold” off and allows the person to move forward past the fears. Anyway…looking forward to hearing from you!


  21. I’m 17 and have skated since I was 10. My biggest problem with nerves is self doubt and being a perfectionist-I’d rather be the image of figure skatin perfection or not skate at all. I have an idea that I need to give a perfect performance though because or my nerves I never do. I spend a lot of time worrying and comparing myself to my competition and it gets me nowhere.


    • Hi Haley, You sound like me! 🙂 Try to get away from the perfectionist thinking because frankly, you will never get there…and what I mean by that is we can tend to have a self-criticizing mind-set. We may skate a clean performance, but not be happy with the spin, or could have done better at the footwork…etc. Perfection leads to disappointment and also increases the pressure before performance. Go out and tell yourself, “I’m going to do my best.” Most likely you’ll get off the ice knowing you did your best even if you fell. No one intends to fall. Everyone competing is trying to do their best. Also, look at each competition and learn from it. You’ve already stated one thing you can work on at the next one…and that is changing how you are thinking about your performance and what kind of expectation you have on yourself. I bet if you can work on that area, that your performance will kick up a notch! Good luck!


  22. Im a figure skater and ive only been skating for a year now i skate in nisa level 2 section and all of the people in my section have been skating for about 4years and are not nervous at all! Im 13 and i love figure skating my dad takes me and he always expects me to do well. Ive only done 2 competitions so far and messed up, when i go on for my warmup my legs are shaking and i feel like i want to give up.My dad pressure’s me and says there’s no point in being a figure skater if im always going to be nervous. I need to enjoy it but i feel like i just want to get it over and done with. My next competition will be in a couple of months and im afraid that i will just get nervous and mess up again.I have a exebition tonight and im already nervous even though its at my rink! I think its the sheer fact that im alone on the ice.


    • Hi Natalie! Great post! I think you’ve done great for only skating for a year! We all get nervous, just at varying degrees. As a skater, being nervous is a part of it as with any performance (dance, etc.). You are out there trying to accomplish something AND people are watching (including mom and dad!). Part of skating/performance is learning HOW to deal with the nerves. Just as you would practice your spins and jumps to make them better, you also need to do physical and mental exercises to calm the heart (and legs!) in order to get a better performance. Here are few ideas: We hold our breath when we are nervous, so beforehand, make sure you are exhaling. Do deep breathing exercises. Warm up and stretch, the more limber you are the more relaxed you will feel. Don’t beat yourself up. We all make mistakes out there. One exercise I do is ask myself…What is the worst that can happen? Maybe fall? If so, can I live with that? Most likely, yes, I can 🙂 Also, only think of positive things while you are warming up and skating. Focus on your technique and squeeze out all of the “What if’s” in your performance…”What if I fall!” “What if I disappoint my coach/father/family!?!” Get rid of those (throw them away) and focus on how to do your toughest element. Walk through it. Spend your time wisely and on positive thinking! Good luck!!!


  23. We certainly wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have some nerves. Loved everyone’s articles and picked up some great tips.


  24. I’ve been skating for 6 years. I also compete sololy and in synchro. I’m a nervous kid especially in front of judges. I’m taking my Intermediate Freestyle test tomorrow and am psyching myself out! I used to get so nervous I would need to take a Xanax to calm down but I love the sport. Competing in synchro, I don’t have nerves. I think I get so nervous cause I don’t want to disappoint my coach or my mom. My mom spends so much money that I feel if I mess up, I’m wasting money. I hate feeling nervous but I can’t clear my head.



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