Every competitive figure skater experiences stress and nerves at competitions and test sessions. It’s important to understand that it is absolutely normal to be nervous about the upcoming competition which is simply part of the sport.
These nerves can affect a skater in two different ways – stress can be helpful and have a positive impact on your performance or it can be negative – causing anxiety and not allowing you to perform to your full potential.
Here is an example from my personal experience.
I was training at the same rink with a guy, his name is Mark. We started skating around the same time when were 4. We were looking up to each other, learning new jumps together at practice. There was always a healthy competition between us which I feel pushed us both to make progress. In practice, I was usually more consistent but when it came to competitions, Mark somehow managed to skate better than he did at the practice and I would usually underperform a little bit.
Read on to this story, it’s been so many years since it happened and I still can’t believe it. We had a competition in Moscow, we were about 13 years old at the time. It wasn’t a normal event where you do a short program and a free skate – this was strictly a jump challenge. It started with a double axel, if you land it you move on to the next jump – triple salchow, then to the next – triple loop, triple flip, and triple lutz as the last challenge. Every skater had two attempts at each jump.
At the time, I was just doing two clean triple jumps so at this event I passed a double axel and a triple salchow, and, as expected, I was eliminated on the triple loop. I’ve seen Mark landing a triple loop before but he did it maybe 1 out of 10 attempts if any at all. Well, he nailed it clean at that competition on his second attempt. Then, he also landed both triple flip and lutz which he has never done before! I was in shock and so was our coach – I’m pretty sure his mouth dropped open when he saw it.
This is a perfect example of a mentally strong athlete using pre-competition nerves, excitement about an event, and a rush of adrenaline to his advantage. Mark used this opportunity to show off his talent and skills at a big competition and, basically, jumped over his head. It wasn’t the only time when he performed at competitions better than he did at practice. He generally had that ability to pull it off out of nowhere and skate his very best at competitions when it mattered the most.
I, on the other hand, never really learned how to control my nerves while I was competing. I wasn’t a horrible competitor and I had plenty of successful competitions where I did skate to my full potential. But even then, I don’t think I was 100% in charge of the nerves and my mental game. I learned how to overcome this anxiety and perform better under pressure years later when I started doing professional ice shows with Disney on Ice.
Most common signs of performance anxiety among figure skaters
- Increased heart rate and rapid breathing.
Increased heart rate and rapid breathing are the most common signs of performance anxiety among figure skaters.
- Butterflies in the stomach.
Some skaters get a feeling of “butterflies in their stomach” just thinking about an upcoming competition or a test session.
Speaking from my personal experience, I was usually feeling this swooping sensation in the gut seconds before I had to go out on the ice while waiting for my turn. But these “butterflies” would disappear the moment I would step on the ice and skate around a little bit.
- Weak, tired, jelly, shaky legs.
These symptoms probably had the biggest negative effect on my performance while I was competing myself. It seems that I was experiencing these “weak legs” anxiety symptoms when I was very nervous because I didn’t notice it every time I was competing. But when I was this nervous, it was really bad.
I would go out to skate my program and I felt like I was skating with heavy ankle weights attached. Sometimes, I couldn’t feel my legs at all which was a disaster when I was going into a jump. Other times, which I also experienced, my legs would shake before a jump takeoff which, obviously, negatively affects the quality of an element.
- Lack of focus and difficulty concentrating.
When a skater has severe performance anxiety, it often leads to a lack of focus and an inability to concentrate. Obviously, it cannot have a positive impact on performance.
One time, I was so nervous at a competition, that I skated the whole program and couldn’t remember a single thing about what I did and how I did it. And it’s not because I fell and got a concussion. At the moment, it didn’t even feel like I was skating in real life, it seemed like I was in a dream or a movie – that’s how nervous I was. I watched that skate on a video afterward and, surprisingly, it didn’t look as bad as I thought it would be…
8 tips to beat pre-competition anxiety in figure skating
1. Practice makes perfect.
The more prepared you are for an upcoming competition, the better you will handle performance anxiety. Obviously, if you are confident in your training and comfortable with the elements, jumps, and the rest of your program, the less you are going to stress.
On the other hand, if you have a competition ahead of you and you are really struggling with some of the elements in practice, this is not an ideal situation as you won’t be able to rely on your training and muscle memory. It can potentially lead you to be more nervous and tense, overthinking, and being afraid of making a mistake/failing.
2. You can’t think about the results until the end of your performance.
It is extremely important not to let yourself think about the results, winning or placing ahead of somebody. Instead, your competition mindset should be 100% focused on your personal goals and your routine. Focus on what you need to do and how to skate your program as best as possible not on how to place ahead of other competitors.
3. Be prepared for a rush of adrenaline when it’s your time to shine.
As I mentioned earlier, every athlete and performer out there is dealing with nerves and performance anxiety. You will feel the rush of adrenaline and you will feel like your heart is pounding out of your chest. This is just something you have to accept and not panic. You are in charge of this adrenaline and your nerves. Forewarned is forearmed!
4. Take a deep breath.
Intentionally taking slower, longer breaths in through your nose will help you manage competition-related stress while being under pressure. Deep breathing technique is something you can practice just like you practice your skating routine. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
5. Get familiar with the ice rink hosting the competition ahead of time.
If this is an option, it’s always a good idea to practice at a new ice rink before the competition. You would want to have at least one practice session to get familiar with the rink, get used to a different ice surface, lighting, and understand where the judges and the audience will be. The last thing you want is to add even more stress because you don’t feel comfortable at a new rink and you never skated on that particular ice.
6. Visualize your success.
Practicing visualization is one of the most effective techniques to beat pre-competition jitters. Close your eyes and go through your routine in your head. Imagine your successful performance, imagine the judges watching you, the audience cheering, and etc.
It especially helped me with the jumps. I would visualize some of the best jumps I’ve ever done and it usually gave me an extra boost of confidence which is incredibly powerful when you are under pressure.
7. Don’t think of the competition as it is a “do or die” situation and “you have to skate well”.
This will put a lot of unnecessary pressure on you and just a handful of athletes can actually benefit from such an approach. You shouldn’t be afraid of a potential mistake that you could make in your performance.
Even if you do make a mistake, it won’t be the end of the world. There are more competitions ahead of you!
Instead of worrying about how important the competition is, that you have to skate clean and can’t fall on a jump, set your mind on things that you can control at the moment.
For example, instead of being worried about falling on an axel jump (or any other element) in your program, you should rather think of the proper technique and things that you have to do technique-wise to successfully execute this element. If you focus on it and do it right, then you’ll land the jump!
8. Learn to enjoy the pressure of competitions.
You can benefit so much if you find a way to enjoy competing and look forward to the upcoming competitions rather than being afraid of them. It can definitely be nerve-wracking and a terrifying experience but there is no better feeling than that moment when you finish a program and feel a huge relief.
After all, competitions and test sessions are part of the sport. And by working on your mental game, practicing visualization, and avoiding over-thinking, you can overcome this anxiety and become a strong competitor.
I hope you’ll find this article useful and it will help you achieve your skating goals! I’ll be happy to hear your feedback in the comments below. Don’t hesitate to share your stories as well as ask for advice.