N is for Nerves

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An ink drawing on white paper of two stick figures in martial arts uniforms standing in front of 5 stick figure judges who are sitting in chairs. The competitors appear to be shaking from nervousness (they have motion lines around the top of their bodies.)

During April, I’m writing 26 posts for the A to Z Blog Challenge. I’m combining my skills as a writer, a life coach, and a martial artist (2nd degree black belt in ITF Taekwondo) to create a series of posts about applying aspects of TKD to life outside of martial arts. Whenever possible, I’ll include a little Taekwondoodle to illustrate what I’m talking about.

I can remember the weeks leading up to my first TKD belt test and the weeks leading up to my first competition. Two of the most nerve wracking occasions of my life.

I’ve done job interviews before and I defended my MA thesis, those were intimidating but they were brain work. Both of those occasions require me to think on my feet and to integrate information (that I have been working with for a long time) to address new questions – that’s an easily accessible skill set for me.

Standing up in front of experts and demonstrating patterns & sparring is a whole different story. Not only did I have to KNOW the things, I had to be able to SHOW the things – I had to make my body do the things that my brain understood.

I’m sure that sort of thing is routine for people who have been involved in sports their whole lives.* I’m not saying it is easier for them but it is more of a regular part of their lives so they have ways of dealing with it. I had no mechanisms in place. I practiced at home and in class but I was overwhelmed at the thought of actually doing it.

However, TKD was important enough to me to make it worth it to put myself through the experiences of competition and belt-testing. If I wanted to stay in TKD – yes, please!- then I had to endure these things.


An ink drawing on white paper of two stick figures in martial arts uniforms standing in front of 5 stick figure judges who are sitting in chairs. The competitors appear to be shaking from nervousness (they have motion lines around the top of their bodies.)

Here are the lessons I have brought from those experiences into the rest of my life:

1) Nerves are not inherently a bad thing.

I was nominated for a community award a few years ago and I was a bit nervous about it. A friend of mine said ‘Nervous is good that means that it is important to you.’ I’ve been carrying that gem around for a while but lately Master Downey has been saying something that adds even more value to that statement.

Master Downey also a psychologist so he regularly brings those skills to his teaching.

He says that nerves are just nerves. They are a natural part of certain experiences and that it is not the nerves themselves that cause us trouble. It’s our thoughts about those nerves that derail us. If we think that feeling nervous means that we are unprepared, then we start feeling bad about our abilities and we throw ourselves off. If we think that our nervousness means that we shouldn’t do this, we won’t be able to concentrate.

However, if we accept that nerves just happen sometime we can reduce the effect they have on our performance.

Also, I can’t remember if he said this or if I just pulled it out of my memory because it fits so well with that train of thought but we can also benefit from thinking of our nervousness as excitement. We think of excitement as a positive thing, nervousness as negative, but in our bodies, they feel pretty similar. I have had some success in reframing a feeling of nervousness into excitement, saying ‘I’m excited about my belt test tomorrow.’ Instead of saying ‘I am so nervous about my test tomorrow.’ – it doesn’t always reduce the feeling but it works often enough to make it worth it. You can read more about that nervous/excitement thing here https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/can-three-words-turn-anxiety-into-success/474909/ and watch a video here. https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/485297/turn-anxiety-into-excitement/

2) You get used to those challenging situations.

The more often you do something the less intimidating it is. It seems that situations like competitions and belt tests are much harder to think about than to do – and I have found the same thing applies with meetings, presentations, and annoying phone calls.

After many, many belt tests and a fair number of competitions, I am much less freaked out by them than I was. I will worry about specific aspects of an upcoming belt test (left handed double punch board break – I’m looking at you!) or a few moves in my competition pattern but the experience as whole is less overwhelming.

So, in a way, it is probably better to do these things as often as you can (Yes, I get how impossible that seems.) so each instance becomes less of a big deal. When you build on the success of having gotten through the challenge over and over, you can approach the next situation with less fear.

3) Failure is not actually that bad.

Okay, so I know that some of you will want to rush in to tell me that the situation below does not constitute a failure because I got up and participated and so on. However, I did not do what I intended to do AND this is an example of the sorts of thing most TKD students are thinking of when they worry about competition, so we’re going to call it failure. I don’t think *I* am a failure but I did fail to do what I set out to do and I think it’s a useful thing for people to read about. I know you may want to rush in to reframe this situation so I will feel better but I don’t feel bad about it, and I don’t feel bad calling it failure. It’s a valuable framework for me.

A few years ago at my first competition as a black belt, I did three moves of my pattern (Gae Baek, if you are wondering) and realized I had skipped the actual third (and fourth) move and I was doing the fifth instead. Skipping a move means you get zero on your pattern.

The sensible and honourable thing to do is to continue the rest of your pattern and see what happens.

I did not do that.

Instead, I froze. Then I returned to my ready posture and hung my head while my cheeks burned with embarrassment.

My brain was hopping with harsh, but not at all realistic, thoughts that went like this: I knew this pattern and I couldn’t believe that I messed it up in that specific way. My instructors had worked so hard to help me and I was letting them down. I looked like an idiot. My husband and sons had come ringside to watch me and now I had made a fool of myself. I outranked the person next to me and I was not being a good example for her.

It went on and on, you know what brains can be like.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t die of humiliation. The ground didn’t open and swallow me. No one criticized me. (they only reminded me that next time I should keep going)

In fact, my failure to do my pattern in that competition didn’t actually mean anything about me as a person.

It sucked and it felt terrible but the feeling passed pretty quickly and I went on to the next thing.

When I think about myself standing there with my head drooping down, I don’t feel angry or sad.

Instead, I feel compassion for myself.

I was doing something that I found hard but I did it anyway. And when I consider the situation as a whole, I realize that there were some factors before I went up to compete that I will need to accommodate for any other time I am competing.

So, my failure served me well, really.

Now I know that messing up isn’t the worst thing that can happen. I know that I can recover from it. And I know how to deal with outside factors that affect my performance.

So, the lesson of N is for Nerves is that being nervous is not fun but it doesn’t mean anything about you as a person – it’s no different than having an itch when you are wearing a wool sweater. Be kind to yourself while you get used to that idea.

*Sidenote: I really admire the way that sporty people can throw their all into a game or a series and then deal with losing. There is a certain resilience that people gain from those experiences that I really envy. I try not to be a sore loser overall but I have not built up the emotional muscle to invest deeply in a game or event and then let go. I am more likely not to invest as deeply so it is easier to let go of it. I have gotten used to things like competitions and belt tests but I still don’t have that specific type of resilience – hopefully it will come.