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Episode 17: Managing Nervousness

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How to manage nervousness for tournaments, tests and demonstrations.

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Episode 5: Breathing and Yelling

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Episode 5 of the Martial Journeys Podcast.  Yelling and breathing for optimal performance in the martial arts.

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Wait, that picture is from my blog!


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Nervousness and Readiness

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Martial Journeys of Madison recently performed in a public demonstration, which doubled nicely as a lesson for some of the more advanced students about the confluence of nervousness and readiness.  We tend to associate nervousness with being unprepared, with not having practiced enough or trained hard enough to get ready.  Certainly preparation is essential whether you’re performing in a demo, competing in a tournament, taking a test, or giving a speech.  There’s no replacement for adequate preparation.  However, being very well prepared does not prevent nervousness!

This performer’s nervousness had nothing to do with the sheer number of hours he spent practicing.

Nervousness is what happens when your brain tells your body that what is about to happen is important.  That’s it.  Your body responds by making itself as ready as possible.  It tells the airways to expand, the lungs to breathe faster, and the heart to beat faster, all to get oxygen to the muscles as quickly as possible.  Your brain releases adrenaline, making you more alert.  Your pupils dilate, letting more light in for improved vision.  You get a sudden boost of energy and a reduced sensation of pain.  Your entire body is primed for whatever comes next.

Most of the effects of nervousness will help you if you’re about to compete in a martial arts tournament.  There are other effects, though, which are less helpful.  Your blood vessels constrict.  You may feel the need to go to the bathroom (or in extreme cases, your body may just do this without waiting for you to actually get there).  Not to mention the most noticeable symptom–the discomfort of feeling nervous.

All this happens because nervousness is the younger cousin of the fight or flight response.  Your body has made itself ready for anything, up to and including a fight for your life.  If you were to be cut, the contracted blood vessels would reduce bleeding, giving you a better chance to survive.  Removing waste from the body decreases the chance of infection should your bladder or intestines become compromised.  While this is of limited use today in our daily lives, it kept our ancestors alive.  Just like the awful feeling that accompanies all these benefits–if our ancient ancestors actually liked the sensation, humanity would have died out long ago by constantly seeking out dangerous situations.

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These two are not trained actors, but their roles required a little performance. Additional preparation may have helped their showmanship, but probably not their nervousness.

I hate to see students perceive their nervousness as a punishment for inadequate training.  Certainly, the better your preparation, the better your performance is likely to be.  But thinking, “I’m nervous, I guess I should have trained harder,” does not help, and moreover is likely untrue.  In fact, training harder may cause you to feel even more nervous.  After investing so much time and effort, you are likely to attach more importance to the event, which in turn makes it more likely for your body to respond.  If you don’t feel nervous, it probably has less to do with your preparation and more to do with misjudging the seriousness or difficulty of the task.  The usual term for this is “overconfidence.”

The next time you feel nervous, work with your body instead of against it.  Millions of years of evolution have conspired to give you the best chances of success.  Nervousness doesn’t mean you’re not ready.  It means that you are.


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