Nerves are a normal part of competition or any aspect of life where the objective is meaningful to you. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t make us nervous. The trouble lies in the fine line between nerves and intimidation. All too often we are intimidated by the idea of our opponent which can like many worries, metastasise to overwhelming proportions.

A few years back a teammate confided they were nervous about an upcoming match and began naming off their opponent’s accolades and rank. I was surprised since my team mate was handily demolishing me and several other team mates as they prepared for the match. I reminded my team mate, “They’ve never competed against you so their achievements are meaningless.”

We get so caught up in our fear of losing, making a mistake or looking bad that we allow ourselves to be intimidated. The key difference between fear and intimidation is your performance.

When we start to worry about their rank, reputation, record or size we’ve already lost. We lose by allowing a title or rank to make us feel lesser or weaker or provide an excuse. We forget that awards and accolades are often arbitrary or specific to one event or rule set.

Even grading belts or rank doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is better than you, it simply means that they’ve met the criteria for that school or teacher’s black belt.

After all the hours of training and drilling you put in to prepare you rob yourself of the chance to truly test your skills by worrying about their experience or titles. Those worries become self-fulfilling prophecies once you walk out to face your opponent. So how can you overcome intimidation? 

The first step is to accept that nerves are a healthy part of the game, accept it.

Accept that you will feel nervous and when your heart rate increases when you think of your upcoming competition acknowledge the feelings and how they affect you physically (does your chest or stomach get tight or your shoulders grow tense?). Note these sensations and remind yourself that these are normal.

Next, recall what you have done to prepare. This is important as many athletes spend hours working on their weaknesses and refining their strengths. Breathe.

Take in deep slow breaths, holding for a beat or two and exhaling until your lungs are empty repeating until you feel calm. 

Finally, remember that everything you are feeling or experiencing is probably the same thing your opponent is feeling. I know that for every mma fight I had and every wrestling / grappling / BJJ match I was nervous as I faced every opponent.

I would be walking into the arena wishing I was on my sofa with cupcakes and beer or worrying that I might forget some crucial detail during the match. As soon as the bell sounded or the ref waived I switched on and performed. I didn’t always perform perfect or as well as I wanted but I did perform. And I was always taken by surprise when I would speak to my opponent after the match and they would say that I seemed intimidating walking out there with confidence.

This isn’t unique to me, either. We are all afraid, afraid of failing or looking foolish and we transfer these fears onto our opponents in the lead up to competition. 

Sure, there are those who are extremely confident but from all the fighters and athletes I’ve spoken to over the years they all have fears and insecurities. The big difference is in their ability to manage them and not allow intimidation to take over.

About The Author

Danielle West

Danielle has been a go-go dancer for Boston punk bands, helped start the UK’s first roller derby league (the London Rollergirls who are still going strong), and has competed professionally in mixed martial arts, wrestling, grappling, and jiu jitsu for over eleven years.

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