Do you have the nerve?

By Ayanna Sealey,
MTI Mental Toughness Coach

As I watched this year’s Toronto Blue Jays Home Opener, I was struck by the fact that we were able to win both the New York Yankees’ and the Baltimore Orioles’ home openers. As it turned out, we lost our own home opener at the Rogers Center. Now, there is no hard and fast rule which says that a team WILL lose their home opener and these may have all been coincidences. However, it made me wonder if there were any major factors that could increase the likelihood of a team losing on their home turf in the first game of the year.

I was reminded of being a professional performing artist, with the memory of us standing in the wings on an opening night. I remember all the hours of rehearsal and all the preparation that we had endured. It was winding down and soon we would be able to show the world our work. Even though in sport, unlike in the theater, you play in many different venues and against many different teams, I would liken the performer’s opening night experience to athletes playing on their home turf for the first time of the season.

Here’s what I saw that might affect both performing artists and athletes on their ‘opening night’:

They might experience a greater abundance of nerves and excitement since the audience, such as media, or friends and family, are familiar to them and are in attendance specifically to watch them perform.
They could be more distracted and would have to divide their attention between these home-turf distractions and expectations of pleasing the home crowd.

As a result, for the home team, what is usually deemed as “normal” nerves could possibly be heightened in this occasion.

What can the athlete or performing artist do to combat opening night nerves:

Become aware: For starters, in these opening night moments it is important that the athlete or performing artist become aware of the unique challenges that this type of situation presents. This awareness can help athletes or performing artists to prepare in a different way than they would for the remainder of the playing season or for the rest of a show’s run.
Create a Pre-Performance Routine: This would include deep breathing, relaxation techniques, visualization, and/or focus exercises. These exercises are intended to slow down the performer’s heart rate and bring his/her focus back into the present moment, where performance can happen. It’s important you practice these exercises before practice/rehearsal sessions too, so you discover what works best for you.
Give yourself extra prep time: In the case of an opening night or a home opener, lengthening regular pre-performance practices or perhaps adding other exercises, such as mindfulness meditation could be helpful.
Shake off the nerves: If sitting still does not work well for you, then perhaps try “shaking off the nerves” by jumping around, shaking out your arms and your legs, and even screaming some sort of war cry; something slightly more physical could work to remove your nerves as well.
TTYL: It’s also important to set your boundaries with your friends, fans, and the media on opening night by saying, ‘Talk To You Later (TTYL)’! Inform them that you have a very specific routine to prepare for your game/performance. Let them know when that will happen, and what you will do, so they don’t feel slighted and you don’t feel responsible for entertaining them. When you communicate your needs before, during, and after the game, you will find a huge weight lifted off your shoulders.

‘Opening night jitters’ are definitely unique as they happen only once a season. However, if athletes and performers pay careful attention to their needs on that day, create a specific pre-performance routine and are in communication with their friends and fans, then these jitters may be managed differently. This Mental Toughness training will then allow the focus to remain on the execution of the game or show, where it belongs.

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