We have all faced nerves and felt anxious before a skating test or competition, right?
Sweaty palms, racing heart, nausea, jittery legs, shaking from the cold yet dripping sweat, forgetting your steps, feeling like your head is floating above your body, maybe your coach even sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher—wah wah wah. When I was a young competitor, I would yawn excessively and tell myself, “I’m not nervous! Look how relaxed I am.” 😅
I didn’t know that I was experiencing performance anxiety, and my coaches didn’t have any words of advice for me. In fact, I was too embarrassed even to admit that I was nervous. In the 80’s and 90’s, performance anxiety was considered a sign of weakness.
Either you could handle the stress, or you couldn’t. If you could, you won. If you couldn’t, you “bombed”. And "Sports Psychology" was only for the elite of the elite.
So, instead of recognizing my nerves, I internalized the bad skates and told myself, “I’m just not as good as the other skaters.”
As a result, I tried to work harder by beating myself up more in practice. Sound familiar?
The Mind-Body Connection in Figure Skating
A couple of weeks ago I listened to Polina Edmunds interview Madison Hubbell on her Bleav podcast, and Madison said that when she was first rising through the competitive ranks, the only mental training anyone really gave her was “every night when you’re going to sleep, visualize your program.”
I remember doing that, too–every night I skated the perfect program in my head. I suppose the idea was to create the perfect visualization to overpower the negative thoughts.
What we now know through science, though, is that the body feels nervous because of the sensory input it receives from its environment, and not just from the thoughts racing through our heads.
Therefore, the only way to combat the nerves is to bring the body back into a state of less stress, not just the mind.
If you want to read further about the science behind this, I go a little more in-depth about the mind-body connection in a previous blog post about Non-Toxic Mental Toughness.
Common Stressors for Skaters
It’s not just skaters that suffer from performance anxiety.
Athletes and performers of all kinds have to combat the nerves and perform at their best on all levels. Skating just has the unique distinction of being very slippery!
“I don’t feel any pressure to win,” you might say. (let’s face it–in this sport, most of us now know that winning is often out of reach) But the reality is that you don’t have to feel pressure to win to be nervous about performing.
Here are just a few of the contributing factors to the nerves a skater might feel before a test or competition:
Not to mention that sometimes there is an actual deadline that places added pressure on the skater–the need to pass a level for a competition or show prerequisite; the desire to qualify for the next step in a competitive series; or maybe an impending move or shifting of finances and priorities.
All of these (and more) are valid stressors for a young athlete, and I’ve talked previously about how the cognitive triangle can break the negative self-talk cycle that often contributes to performance anxiety.
Today, though, I’m focusing on some of the physical symptoms of performance anxiety and how embodied movement, breathwork, and meditation practices can help overcome it.
How Performance Anxiety Shows up in Skaters
You may have experienced some or all of these in yourself or a skater you know:
Top Tools for Beating Nerves and Anxiety in Skating
We’ve looked at why skaters might be anxious and how that anxiety might manifest at different moments for different skaters. (This is why performing often is key to development–we don’t always react the same way in times of stress!)
So how do we manage the nerves to still achieve our goals?
First and foremost, we must focus on creating a positive training environment that helps each skater focus on their own goals and individual journeys.
I’ve talked about this before in relation to yoga sutra 1.33, where the sage Patanjali advises, “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”
Indeed, by practicing these attitudes daily, working on realistic goal setting, enjoying the process, and keeping the stakes of a test or event in perspective, we can get a head start on alleviating the pressure skaters may feel.
In a safer, more accepting environment, the body can stay more relaxed and achieve optimal performance.
Nevertheless, the nature of a judged sport means there is bound to still be some stress, and some personalities and bodies will always feel it more than others.
As skaters get older, too, they tend to become aware of the cost of the sport and more aware of what others around them are doing and achieving. And whether or not they are even aware they are thinking of these things, the thoughts are in the brain, influencing the body.
So, we take steps to gain control of our thoughts and reconnect with our bodies.
Below are my favorite embodiment tools and techniques to help skaters regain the mind-body connection so crucial to an enjoyable and successful performance.
Not all of these tools will work for everyone, and like anything, some of them may take some practice and personalization before they are completely effective. Most skaters may need a combination of these techniques to bring themselves into a state of balance so they can beat the nerves.
Skaters of all ages face different factors that cause them stress in testing and competitive situations. As much as we may try to create a positive training environment and keep the focus on individual journeys rather than comparisons, it’s impossible to take the judgment 100% out of a judged sport.
The body automatically senses stressors in the environment, even when the mind isn’t actively thinking of them, and each skater’s body reacts in unconscious ways. While some skaters naturally thrive under this pressure, the majority of skaters react with some manifestation of fight, flight, freeze, and/or fawn.
Our body’s response doesn’t have to derail our plans, though! The judges and the event are only perceived threats–not actual threats like a tiger running toward you. Use these 10 tools to beat the nerves that would otherwise stand in the way of reaching your goals and having fun in the process.
If you or a skater you know has ever struggled with nerves on test day… and you’d like some help in implementing these practices, get started today by signing up for my Anxiety Tool Kit for Skaters. It’s free!
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.