How nerves can improve your performance



”I was messed up man.  My nerves were all over the place.  I tried to drink a glass of water and my hand was shaking” *(1)

This is how Maurice Greene felt before he competed in the Olympics. If a five times world champion, winner of 4 medals can get nervous,  then anyone can.

What Maurice Greene is describing though is the body’s way of preparing for the fight or the challenge.

 This is not a bad thing as when you get the balance right you can turn your nerves into a performance enhancer. 



As Psychiatrist Kelly Mcgonicalsay wrote in 'Upside of Stress'

“when the balance is right the runner will run faster and the marksman will see clearer.”

But if the balance is not, then these same chemicals can produce negative stress or anxiety. 



These feelings won’t go away completely nor do we want them to.  A degree of stress isn’t a bad thing and some athletes say they get better results when they have it *2.  

But the balance needs to be right and for this we need to understand three things :

1.       Why we feel nervous

2.       How changing our view can turn them into performance enhancers

3.      The best  strategy to do this



When asked to put in a special performance, the body produces chemicals which fire us to perform better.  These chemicals include cortisol and DHEA.  Briefly, cortisol helps turn sugar and fat into energy and improves the ability of your body and brain to use that energy.

There have been incredible examples of super-human displays of strength which are seemingly impossible for a human to achieve. Eg teenage girls in Oregan raised a 3000 pound tractor off their father trapped underneath.   Similarly, a young woman pushed a car off her friend single handed to save her life.  When asked how they did these remarkable feats they said they just found this super human strength within them .When faced with the ultimate challenge, the body can produce extraordinary results.  Were these girls scared - you bet they were.  But they channelled their stress response into a powerful resource.

 It is not just physical either.   Research on military survival training showed more of the stress induced neuro-steroid  DHEA brought greater focus and superior problem solving skills as well as greater resilience. *3    Stress can therefore sharpen the mind. 

Stress can also improve visual focus, attentional focus too.   So it doesn't just benefit the power lifter or the athlete - it can benefit the fine motor skills sports person like the archer, the pistol shooter, the snooker player, the golfer too. 

But here’s the rap :  these chemicals for getting a great performance can also flood you with anxiety and harm your performance.

in her excellent book ‘The Upside of Stress’. Psychiatrist Kelly McGonincal explains how the stress response has been misunderstood


Dr. Mcgonical says stress has got a bad name because of the Fight and Flight over simplification and the mismatch theory.  ‘Fight or flight’ is the powerful response we produce when faced with danger.  Stress hormones give us the power to fight the attacker or run away. 

 When the fight of flight theories were borne in the early 20th century, researchers like Hans Selye and Walter Cannons were subjecting the research animals to very traumatic torture.  They were in fear for their life – the stress hormones produced were responding to fear of death.

The mismatch theory says that this worked for our ancestors but  doesn’t work for us as we are no longer in constant fear of attack.

However,  McGonigal  says the  mismatch theory is wrong because  it hinges on the idea that there is only one kind of stress response.  She shows the stress response is more than just for fight or flight.

 ‘ To throw a punch or run a mile would truly be a mismatch for modern life but there are more variations and complexity.’

 As humans have evolved so has our stress response adapted over time to better fit the world we live in now.  It can activate multiple biological systems each supporting a different coping strategy .  So your stress response won’t just help you push the fallen rock from the cave entrance , it will help you to rise to challenges and perform better.   



Research shows that the stress response

  • ·         Aids muscles, improves energy to give you extraordinary physical abilities
  • ·         Improves vision focus  – pupils dilate to let in more light
  • ·         Adrenalin wakes up your senses
  • ·         Sharpens Hearing
  • ·         Brain processes information more quickly
  • ·         Improves attention
  • ·         Helps you to get into the zone 
  • ·         Increases growth and learning
  • ·         Improves decision making

But to take advantage of these we have to view it differently and this is where the Challenge Response Strategy comes in (see later)



Jazz musicians Melvin ‘Sy’ Oliver and James ‘Trummy’ Young wrote ‘It ’aint what you do it’s the way that you do it ; that’s what gets results’ in the 1930s.  (Popularised by Fun Boy Three)  Maybe they should have written it’s the way that you  view it – because from a psychology perspective, it really is the way that you view it, that gets results.



Psychologist Dr. Alia Crum has carried out a variety of research to show that the way that we view things changes the affect that they have on us physically and mentally.  In one study she used hotel cleaners : who in spite of having a very physical and active job – did not reap the benefits of exercise as you would expect.   Two groups of cleaners were  assessed mentally and their  weight and fitness at the outset of the experiment.  Group One were then told to do their normal job – and group two were shown videos and given talks on how their cleaning job was beneficial for their health as it was terrific exercise.  

After a couple of months the two groups were tested again – weight, mentality, fitness.  Group one remained the same but Group 2 had a more positive outlook, had lost weight and their fitness levels had improved markedly.   The difference was all down to their altered  view of their work as being good for fitness rather than just a cleaning job. 



 Her research revealed  that those who were taught the value of stress feelings pulled off hugely better performances than those who retained their old “stress is bad” beliefs.   The studies showed that how you think about stress is the difference between thriving under stress or wilting under pressure.  One gets you fired up for greatness the other results in burn out.

She also found that when people expect to learn from a stressful experience, their physical stress response is changed to a more support stress inoculation.  Viewing a video on stress enhancing qualities increased participants DHEA levels during and after stress situations.

The bottom line is If you view stress or nerves  as an opportunity to improve your skills, knowledge or strength you will more likely have a positive stress response instead of an over whelming anxiety reaction.


More proof : The Stress study – Dr Alia Crum

For this study one group were shown a video explaining the principles of what is happening during a stressful reaction.  It also showed how some stress chemicals are needed to perform at your peak.  It showed examples of people performing heroically under stress.   Research was carried out with different groups , health care professionals, students, managers, sportsmen  and even Navy SEALs. 

  The new stress mind- set they developed (ie stress can be a good thing) helped them massively by enabling them to channel their  adrenalin in a good direction.  They all scored better and reported feeling less apprehensive.

This is why it is important to ‘re-frame’ the feelings being produced by the performance chemicals .  By viewing them as the performance fuel   we need for outstanding performance , we can use them to improve performance.



Instead of trying to banish  nerves,  what if you view those feelings as the preparation for the challenge.  That pounding heart,  breathing faster is no longer a problem. It's getting more oxygen to your brain.  THis is what elite performance is made of.   This is a great shift in thinking for the better.

If you are participating in a fine motor skills sport where you need a clear head, focus and accuracy (golfers, snooker players, shooters etc) the knowledge that the DHEA hormone improve svisual focus, attention and decision making can turn the enemy nerves into ‘prepare for accuracy and focus’ fuel.   This is not just for car lifters - these performance chemicals can improve everyone.



Now for the important bit - the practical advice to improve your experience.

1.       The re frame.  Before the competition you are preparing to excel.    This is how to view the feelings – the body’s way of preparing to pull off a great feat.  It is all hands to the pump literally.  You need these feelings to be able to perform your best physically and mentally.

2.       No more calling them nerves; they are now Performance Fuel. *4 (explains) This positive message will get a more positive response .  Feelings are now  feelings of excitement.

3.      See the competition as a learning experience and an opportunity to improve skills, knowledge, experience or strength.  Viewing it in this way will make it more likely that you will have a challenge response rather than an overwhelming anxiety response.

4.      What mental state do you want to be in.  With the adrenalin pumping   through your body , expecting to be in a relaxed state is unrealistic.  In my experience, particularly with fine motor skills sports people,  focussing on being in a powerful and focussed mental state is far more productive and easier to achieve.

5.      Instead of trying to eradicate the feelings, just be aware of them and how they can be used for extra special performances.   Think ‘these feelings are making my body more powerful, and my mind more alert and focussed.  My vision is improved and I am preparing for the challenge’

6.      Use imagery when the feelings arise.  Think of an image which signifies strength and elite performance.  In a second you can change how you view the feelings when you associate them with a powerful response.  eg the tractor lifters is good  as in a flash it represents how amazing the body's response can be.  

7.     Put this particular game/competition into perspective – it is one of many – it is only part of who you are – it is an opportunity to learn and improve your performance

8.      Develop a strategy / routine to follow before competitions

9.      Remember to build in the new you and your new stress response into your mental rehearsal/visualisation .   Visualise yourself before the competition with feelings of power and focus – use imagery to reinforce that these feelings are preparing you to rise to the challenge..



My name is Jenny Truman and I am a mental skills performance coach. I coach sports people at all levels from amateur to professional.  To find out more about me  please visit .  If you would like help with any of the issues in this article you can contact me on 07870 705007 or e mail



(1)     Layden 2000 p46

(2)  Jones et al 1993

(3)  The Upside of Stress  Kelly McGonigal   2015  Published by Penguin    

(4)  *4 Words have a huge emotional impact.  Just as Eddie Jones England Rugby Manager chooses  to call his substitutes finishers.  Using positive words to describe nerves (which has negative emotional connotations) really can change the feeling.  The feelings can then be reframed as excitement and the pre competition fuel to push you that bit further.