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5 ways to manage nerves in sport and at school

5 ways to manage nerves in sport and at school

4 min read
  • Sport psychology
  • Stress management & well-being

A student writing their exams shares similarities with an athlete competing on match day. Both require the ability to perform under pressure, and turning months, if not years, of hard work into a one-off performance. Both can make people nervous.

It is interesting to consider that the techniques used by students to manage nerves, can also be used by athletes. The context and situation may be different, but the strategies implemented to manage their emotions can be the same.

Here we look at 5 techniques that either students can use before an exam, or an athlete can use before a match, in order to manage their nerves:

1. Self Talk

How you talk to yourself can have a huge impact on how you think, feel and perform. For example, asking yourself questions instead of saying statements (‘Will I do well?’ v ‘I will do well) has been found to help improve insight. It is thought that asking yourself questions is an effective technique when adopting new behaviours or when in unfamiliar situations. These sort of questions are especially helpful when developing metacognitive skills (a skill that we recommend all athletes develop and one that has also been proven to help disadvantaged students). 

As well as asking yourself questions, research has found that telling yourself what to do can help athletes improve attention and perform better under pressure. For students, this technique can help improve their self-control, as well as their ability to plan and prepare effectively. This can include ‘what do I need to do now?’, ‘what has worked well in the past?’ and ‘am I on the right track?’

2. Picture perfect

Picturing yourself performing an upcoming task really well has been found to increase confidence. Spending just 15 minutes (which when you think about it, is just 1% of a day) imagining yourself successfully completing a task can help reduce any potential nerves. However, be careful. Too much time spent visualising can quickly translate into too much time procrastinating. This blog looked at 7 ways to avoid procrastination. If you have already done the hard work, spending a few minutes picturing it going well should ensure you get all the psychological benefits, without any of the negative consequences of daydreaming the day away.

3. Face your fears head on

Psychologists state that there are three type of coping strategies. Avoidance, Emotional and Problem Focused. Let’s say your car has run out of petrol. You could decide to never drive again (avoidance), or convince yourself that not being able to drive anywhere isn’t that bad (emotion focused) or you could go to the petrol station and fill up your tank (problem focused coping). 

The issue is that avoidant coping may offer short term relief, and emotional coping may make you feel a bit better, but problem-focused coping is the only option that addresses the problem head on. If you are nervous about an exam or a football match, then do something about it. Getting better at something is one of the most effective ways at improving your confidence. This will therefore help reduce your nerves about it.

We will teach your students to thrive under pressure with key stress management skills. Ideal in the lead up to exams.

4. Reframing

How do you see an upcoming event; as a challenge or a threat? You are more likely to view an event as a threat if you a) focus on what it is you stand to lose, b) feel the situation demands too much from you and c) worry about looking bad. On the flipside, if you focus on what it is you stand to gain, feel you have the resources and skills necessary to meet the task and focus on mastery, then you are more likely to view the event as an opportunity. This differentiation can have a significant impact on how you think, feel and perform. There is some exciting research emanating from psychologists at Staffordshire University on this. You can read about their work here,, and is something some of our future blogs are going to look at in more detail.

5. Know that everyone gets nervous

The ‘Spotlight Effect’ describes how people tend to overestimate how much attention other people are paying them. You feel like all eyes are on you. This was demonstrated in a study that had students wear an embarrassing t-shirt to a lecture (for the record, the t-shirt that was chosen was one that just had Barry Manilow’s face on it). The participants predicted that 50% of the other students would notice the t-shirt. In reality, less than 25% did.

A similar situation applies to nerves. It is easy to think that you are the only one who gets nervous. That these feelings are unique to you. That everyone is always calm and confident and they are judging you for being nervous. This could not be further from the truth. Every athlete gets nervous at some stage. Every student has moments of self-doubt. Remind yourself that these feelings are normal. They are natural. And they happen to everyone else as well.

Final thoughts

For even more info take a look at our page Best Ways to Revise, where you’ll find links to blogs and research.